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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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
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Soma Bhattacharya

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Viewing Posts by Jen Skrabak

5 Career Tips for 2020

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP, MBA

As we close out 2019 at work, wrap up projects, and plan to spend time with our families for the holidays, sometimes we forget this is the best time to prepare for the year to come. Here are my five tips to get you in the mindset:

1.  2020 starts now. 

The traditional thinking is that nothing happens from Thanksgiving to New Year’s since hiring managers and companies are preparing for the holidays. 

The real situation is that everything happens at the end of the year. Companies are busy preparing for next year, and, from personal experience, November/December has been the busiest time for recruiting senior-level portfolio/program executives. Hitting the ground running starting Jan. 1 means that 2020 starts now. 

Key questions for you to start your 2020 planning:

  • What are your career goals for 2020? 
  • Are your CV or résumé and LinkedIn profile up to date with key accomplishments and aligned with your career goals?
  • What are your development plans? Do you have training scheduled, books to read or people you need to consult with to gain insights?

2.  Ladder up your experiences and skills. 

The traditional thinking is that a career ladder is about getting a new title at the next level with a higher salary.

The real situation is that building your career is about learning agility and building a repertoire of experiences and micro roles. If you’ve been in program or portfolio management for seven years or more, it may start to feel that you’ve “been there, done that.” To get to the next level of experiences, ask yourself: In 2020, how will you learn a new skill, gain a new experience or learn from someone?

3.  Transformation must be visible. 

The traditional thinking is that transformation is about organizational change management, which is mainly instituted through a variety of communication methods and channels (memos, town halls, workshops, staff meetings, etc.).  In a recent viral stationary bike ad, the woman depicted before and after the transformation looked the same—many people had issues with the cognitive dissonance where she said that her life changed so much, but the change was not visible.

The real situation is that transformation is more than just communication.  Instead of telling people what the change is, the approach should be to actively demonstrate the change so people can experience it.  Transformation at the organizational level is about behavior change.

When I implement a large-scale organizational change, I personally lead up interactive training sessions to teach people about the change, as well as follow-up sessions where I’m hands-on in mentoring and coaching people on the new skills. It’s a great way to get real-time feedback about the change, and most importantly, to be seen as the expert coach within the organization enabling the change. This has been very effective in building trust and credibility in the organization.

4.  Create space. 

The traditional thinking is that when you see a good idea for a program, go implement it—quickly—to take advantage of speed to market. 

The real situation is, just like a cluttered drawer that you keep adding to, a portfolio can be cluttered if not systematically managed. From a personal standpoint, I had to move recently, and I was surprised at how many things I found in the back of the drawer that I forgot existed. When I emptied it out and scrutinized every item, I discovered that 30-40 percent of the items were not needed or were no longer useful since they were damaged, broken or just plain outdated. By getting rid of items, I created space for new items and technology, just like in an organization.

The steps to portfolio management in an organization are: 

  • Inventory: Create a complete listing of all programs, projects and activities that consume resources.
  • Rationalize: Scrutinize and prioritize every item. Does it have ROI? Is it really going to move the needle on the strategy? You can even develop simple project scoring to prioritize—key criteria can include value, resources and alignment to strategy.
  • Start, Stop, Sustain: Make decisions and tradeoffs about what to start, stop and sustain. In an organization, teams sometimes continue to do what they’ve always done for years, and it takes a thorough review of the portfolio to surface work that is not needed or useful—just like the drawer example.
  • Quarterly/Annual Review: Portfolio optimization is about doing Step No. 2 above regularly, not just one time. Conducting a performance review at least quarterly is the best way to ensure that the decisions initially made in Step No. 3 haven’t changed due to environmental factors (internally or externally).

5.  Volunteer for your next role.

The traditional thinking is that your manager assigns you the next program or role.

The real situation is you are responsible for actively managing your next role. You should tell the right managers and other leaders what you would like your next program or role to be.

Key steps:

  • Clearly state your desire: What type of program or role would you like? Be as specific as writing your own job description, including responsibilities, skills and experience needed.
  • Develop a plan: What steps, dates and resources do you need to get to your desired role from where you currently are? Do you have the skills and experience needed or do you need to develop them? What support or resources from leaders or others do you need to accomplish your plan? Treat this like any other project you would manage, with a project plan and project schedule.
  • Track your progress: Check in with yourself every week and key supporting leaders monthly or quarterly. Hold yourself accountable and adjust as needed.

Don’t wait: What is your plan for starting 2020 now?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: December 18, 2019 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (20)

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 (18)

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)
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