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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Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Roberto Toledo
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rex Holmlin
Christian Bisson
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Jess Tayel
Ramiro Rodrigues
Linda Agyapong
Joanna Newman
Soma Bhattacharya

Past Contributers:

Jorge Valdés Garciatorres
Hajar Hamid
Dan Goldfischer
Saira Karim
Jim De Piante
sanjay saini
Judy Umlas
Abdiel Ledesma
Michael Hatfield
Deanna Landers
Alfonso Bucero
Kelley Hunsberger
William Krebs
Peter Taylor
Rebecca Braglio
Geoff Mattie
Dmitri Ivanenko PMP ITIL

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Reflections on My Favorite Projects

Viewing Posts by Jen Skrabak

Why Employees Leave Culture

by Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

Most people leave organizational cultures, not managers.

Organizational culture is defined as the collective behaviors, thoughts, norms and language of the people in the organization that signifies the "way of working." It represents the overall support system and resources of the organization. 

For example, if employees regularly start meetings late, then the culture of the organization may be to begin meetings late ("it's just the way things are"). Newcomers quickly learn this unwritten norm, and adapt to the late meetings, further propelling the status quo.   

It's important to understand that people leave organizational cultures because portfolios and programs can represent significant change to the organization—requiring new ways of working, behaviors and new operating agreements defined to support the change. However, if the organization is resistant to change—and the traditional ways of working remain—how do you change the culture?

First, let us understand why people leave the organizational culture and what we can do to model the right behaviors as leaders:

1. Misaligned Vision and Leadership

A common complaint is that there is "no perspective of where the organization is headed and not being able to see how my role fits into the bigger picture."

Leaders, starting at the top, must role model the behaviors they expect. Rather than simply talk about the vision or the strategy, they must roll up their sleeves to translate the vision very specifically and tangibly into everyone's work.

This is typically done through the strategic portfolio—employees identify with a stack ranking of strategic initiatives that communicate the most essential programs and projects of the organization. Each executive sponsor must then clearly translate the vision into day-to-day actions that the program or project is implementing. 

The strategic portfolio represents the "better state" of the targeted culture— what are the behaviors, ways of working, thinking and norms that need to be in the future. This is codified typically through team charters, operating agreements, and ground rules so that everyone on a team follows the same rules and ways of working.

2. Compromised Values, Beliefs and Increased Toxicity

When employees feel they are being coerced into doing things that don't align with their values, they will find other places to use their talents. Behaviors that result during large scale change may be burnout, rumors, and change fatigue.

Mediocrity may have been accepted as good enough, resulting in high performers, leaving the organization due to lack of challenge and opportunities. However, for those that remain, it may be difficult to absorb change since they never had to. 

As a portfolio or program leader, you don't need permission, budget or authority to start acting in ways that model high performance. Recognize and reward the right behaviors and call out the wrong behaviors. 

Growth needs to be the focus—desire is a powerful emotion—more than the fear/doubt that is often the first reaction when encountering change. The first emotion is Fear/Doubt. Left unmanaged, this can spiral into water cooler conversations, negativity and constant churn. 

However, having a growth mindset means that there are opportunities created from changing and learning new skills that can propel that organization to embrace new ways of working.

 3. Organizational Structures and Processes that Create Stagnation 

Not having structured processes that support high performance creates an environment that people leave. No one wants to stand out when something new is introduced—it's almost like a virus where the antibodies (the current organizational culture) start attacking it. There needs to be a core group of high performers that embrace and spread the targeted organizational culture across the organization.

High performers can't stand waste—wasted time in meetings, wasted use of resources, and wasted opportunities. Is the strategic portfolio management or program management office reporting to the executive leadership team level, or is it buried somewhere within the organization under a functional organization? 

Growing organizations embrace change as a constant and adopt a growth mindset. 

A growth mindset means that the organization is continually learning and sees change as an opportunity to learn new skills and gain new experiences. Rather than sit back and accept the status quo, we seek out how to design and build the change rather than be just the recipient of the change. Thoughts and mindset ultimately translate into behavior. Motivation and attitude are skills that are just as important as the technical portfolio or program management skills and can be developed over time. 

How are you developing your growth mindset?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: September 22, 2019 12:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

How to Lean In—and Thrive—in Project Management

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Over nearly two decades in project management, I’ve learned a number of strategies to make my voice heard and advance in my career. Much of that success has come by “leaning in,” as Sheryl Sandberg advocates.

As a woman in project management, I believe the following are key:

  1. Show grit. Demonstrate courage, show your perseverance and never give up in the face of obstacles. Know that it’s a multi-year journey, and you must demonstrate the passion to achieve your long-term goals as a leader in project management.
  2. Be the best. Knowledge, skills, abilities—you need to consistently demonstrate that you’re the best, and not be afraid to speak up and show it. Throughout my career, I have always assessed gaps in my knowledge or experience, and actively worked to close them. For example, although I started in IT, I wanted to transition to the business side to lead business transformation programs. I actively sought out progressive assignments by building a track record of successful projects that became larger in scope and team size with each project, until I achieved my goal of an enterprise-wide program impacting hundreds of thousands of users.
  3. Execute flawlessly. Execution is an art, not a science, and it requires creativity, impeccable organization, exceptional communication and most of all, follow-through. Many of these skills are intuitive in women, and the key is to understand that execution requires the leadership of large teams through four stages:
    1. Awareness: Create the right “buzz” around the project.
    2. Understanding: Teams need to understand their role and how their actions fit into the larger picture.
    3. Acceptance: Teams need to accept the message or change by changing their behavior and taking the appropriate action.
    4. Commitment: To demonstrate true commitment, teams should help champion the message throughout the organization.
  4. Build confidence and trust. Multiple studies support the notion that women are not only better at assessing risk, they are also better at guiding actions and decisions accordingly. Women should use this natural decision-making ability and risk management expertise to build confidence and trust as project leaders.
  5. Communicate clearly and concisely. Keep communications rooted in data and facts, not based on subjective information or personal preferences. Women in leadership roles tend to rate themselves lower than men on key attributes such as problem solving, influencing and delegating, and rate themselves higher than men on supporting, consulting and mentoring. How much time are you spending on communicating the right messages and influencing to gain commitment to your viewpoints versus supporting others?

International Women’s Day is March 8, and this year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter. Please share your thoughts on how we celebrate the achievement of women while we continue to strive for balance for women socially, economically and culturally around the world.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: March 05, 2019 10:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

What’s Holding Women Back in Project Management?

By Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

As a woman who’s worked for the past 18-plus years in project, program and portfolio management, as well as building and leading enterprise project management offices for Fortune 500 companies, I wanted to address the topic of women in project management.

In the United States, women hold 38 percent of manager roles, according to a study conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org. And while women have made gains in some STEM fields, particularly healthcare and life sciences, they are underrepresented in many others. U.S. women hold 25 percent of computer jobs, and just 14 percent of those in engineering, according to the Pew Research Center.

In project management, as in other professions, women earn less than men. For project managers in the United States, men earn an average US$11,000 more annually than women, according to PMI’s Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey.

Historically, women have been pigeonholed in project administrative or project coordination roles instead of project management roles, and the key question is “Why?”

We’ve all heard that we need to “think differently,” and as Sheryl Sandberg advocated in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, women need to raise their hands, project confidence, be at the table and physically lean in to make themselves heard. The dictionary definition of “lean in” means to press into something. So when faced with an overwhelming force such as wind, you need to lean toward the force rather than away in order to not be blown away. 

“Lean in” can be a metaphor for asserting yourself as a leader in project management. As women, we may be held back by self-doubt, our speaking voice or body language that conveys a lack of self-confidence. The advice here is not limited to women; people of color can “lean in,” too.

There are three key cognitive biases that may hold women back in project management. The key is to recognize that these exist, and work to build awareness while overcoming them:

  1. Affinity Bias: We naturally like people who are like us, including those who are the same gender or ethnicity. Men tend to be over-represented in leadership positions and in industries where project management predominates, such as IT, engineering, manufacturing and construction. It is natural that men would prefer to work with and report to people like themselves.  
  2. Inter-Group Bias: This can occur with many groups, such as people from a certain geography (cities or regions), university, culture or other characteristics such as an interest in sports. We naturally feel an instant connection to people with whom we share the same background or a common characteristic, versus those with whom we don’t have anything in common.
  3. Confirmation Bias: A widely held belief is that women appear to not be as confident as men. And when people believe this, they embrace information or experiences that confirm that belief. Research has shown that women are usually expected to be nice and warm, instead of assertive, direct and confident.

By understanding and recognizing these biases, we can work to defeat them. I’ll explore these topics more in my next post, which will coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. How do you combat biases in the workplace?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: February 25, 2019 11:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

The Next-Gen PMO

by Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

Project management offices (PMOs) have gained wide acceptance thanks to their ability to ensure the success of projects and programs. More than 80 percent of organizations have PMOs.

But, there is still some confusion with PMOs, as the “P” in PMO can refer to project, program or portfolio. At the same time, PMOs have been thought of as one of three categories:

  • Supportive: Low-level of control with a focus on status reporting and passive monitoring. This type of PMO has low authority, low visibility within the organization and performs primarily administrative functions. Project managers are usually part-time resources and report into functional areas.
  • Controlling: Moderate level of control and oversight over programs and projects. In this PMO, an overall project management framework, plus templates and tools, are in place. Project managers and other support staff (business analysts, project coordinators) report directly or matrixed into the PMO.
  • Directive: High-level of control over programs and projects. This PMO has a lot of authority and visibility within the organization to drive overall execution of programs and projects. Project managers, business/IT leads and other support staff report directly into and are accountable to the PMO.

The Next-Gen PMO, however, is disrupting these traditional categories. In the Next-Gen PMO, the focus is on ensuring the successful delivery of organization-wide strategic initiatives. In addition to traditional PMO functions, such as providing project management tools, templates and training, the Next-Gen PMO is responsible for organizational results. They also report directly to a C-suite executive within the organization. 

I see the four critical functions of the Next-Gen PMO as:

  1. Strategic Focus: Align, prioritize and focus the organization on the top critical initiatives based on organizational capabilities as well as constraints, such as resources or culture. The PMO should operate at the strategic level with executives, and align supply and demand of resources. That may include financial (such as budget), human (not on just number of people available, but skill and capability), or organizational culture (such as the capacity to absorb change, particularly sustaining change over time). 
  2. Governance: Implement the appropriate executive governing board with authority to make hard decisions. Decisions may involve escalated issues/risks, resolving resource contentions, as well as which projects/programs to start, stop and sustain. Often, governance is engaged in starting new projects — particularly low or underperforming ones — without appropriately counterbalancing which projects may have to be stopped in order to free up resources
  3. End-to-End Delivery: This takes a dedicated, seasoned project manager with authority and accountability to the PMO to define, plan and deliver the project, along with identifying appropriate resources and ensuring sponsor support and engagement. The PMO should create a culture where project management is valued and seen as a business enabler to successfully delivering projects. They should develop a roadmap of key initiatives, dependencies and resources that provide value to the organization. That cohesively brings together projects and cross-functional departments that are aligned to strategy.
  4. Benefits Realization: Achieving the promises of project proposals starts with a robust business-case review process, as well as ongoing monitoring for performance and its impacts on the benefits. The PMO should establish success criteria and KPIs to monitor project and portfolio health, and take corrective actions as needed to ensure that the original ROI is met.

Is your organization embracing the Next-Gen PMO?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: August 02, 2018 06:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (19)

3 Career Goals for 2018

by Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

Happy 2018! Make this year your best yet! 

I know we’ve been hearing these phrases for several weeks now, but one thing still rings particularly true: There’s no denying the fresh-start effect of the new year. 

And with another new year comes new resolutions. 

Instead of resolution, I like goals better. Goals are things that we should strive toward — not just at the beginning of the year, but throughout.

Here are the career development goals I would challenge you to strive for this year:

1.   As you progress through your career, it’s less about collecting a paycheck and more about making choices as to where you’ll do your best work. Don’t oversell yourself. Instead, spend time to really understand the company, roles/responsibilities, team(s) you’ll be working with and how you’ll fit. 

Over the past year, I’ve interviewed a lot of people for senior level program and portfolio positions. I’ve noticed that many are focused on selling themselves for the job instead of thoughtfully understanding the role, assessing how their skills/experiences match up with the expectations and how they will be contributing. If it’s the right fit, then you should articulate why. If it’s not the right fit, acknowledge that as well. Not every role or company is right for every person.

2.   We all know that your direct manager has a lot to do with your career success. As they say, people leave their managers, not the company.  Although you may not have the ability to change your managers, there are some things you can do to develop your career even when you work with a less-than-ideal manager:  

a.   Instead of worrying about what you can’t control, focus on what you can control. Don’t try to change people (such as your manager or team members). Instead, focus on roles and responsibilities. Most companies encourage candid conversations with your manager — be clear about what you would like to see differently about your role. For example, would you like to stretch yourself and have the opportunity to develop your skills in managing programs? Negotiation and influence are key leadership traits, and negotiating your role is a key component of career development.

b.   There is a common saying, “Dress for the job you want.” I say, “Manage yourself and your job for the next role.” When promotions happen, it typically means that you’ve already been doing the job for that next role. So, look at the job descriptions for the ideal role that you want (inside or outside of the company), and do an honest assessment of your gaps. Now that you know where you want to go (your ideal job), you need to know where you currently are (your current knowledge, skills and abilities). Then map out an action plan to get there.

3.   Do some new year’s decluttering and cleaning. Over time, I’m sure you have accumulated a lot of files, activities, commitments and even habits that you’ve been carrying around. Rather than assuming those are still needed, scrutinize what you actually need going forward, and be a bit relentless in simplifying and focusing on what you actually need.

Do you remember Thomas Guides? These were the definitive maps, especially for a car culture like Southern California where I’m based. It was a big event when the new year arrived, a time that also ushered in the new edition of the Thomas Guides. Now, our phones and Google Maps have made those guides obsolete. How many of the Thomas Guides (metaphorically speaking) do you still have around? Take a good look and do some ruthless cleaning.

What goals would you add to this list?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: January 25, 2018 03:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (19)
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