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.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Cameron McGaughy
Lynda Bourne
Kevin Korterud
Peter Tarhanidis
Conrado Morlan
Jen Skrabak
Mario Trentim
Christian Bisson
Yasmina Khelifi
Sree Rao
Soma Bhattacharya
Emily Luijbregts
David Wakeman
Ramiro Rodrigues
Wanda Curlee
Lenka Pincot
cyndee miller
Jorge Martin Valdes Garciatorres
Marat Oyvetsky

Past Contributors:

Rex Holmlin
Vivek Prakash
Dan Goldfischer
Linda Agyapong
Jim De Piante
Siti Hajar Abdul Hamid
Bernadine Douglas
Michael Hatfield
Deanna Landers
Kelley Hunsberger
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Alfonso Bucero Torres
Marian Haus
Shobhna Raghupathy
Peter Taylor
Joanna Newman
Saira Karim
Jess Tayel
Lung-Hung Chou
Rebecca Braglio
Roberto Toledo
Geoff Mattie

Recent Posts

6 Steps for Rational Decision Making

The Dangers of Perfectionism for You and Your Team

Leading Your Team Through Tough Times

The Evolution of Project Management

Are You a Mentor…or a Micromanager?

Viewing Posts by David Wakeman

Leading Your Team Through Tough Times

by Dave Wakeman

I was reading an article the other day about understanding the signs of burnout. The list was pretty much representative of what most people share when I talk with them about it these days: It included things like trouble focusing, missing deadlines, not feeling like they know what they’re doing, and struggling for motivation.

Then I saw a reminder of how we are in the third year of the pandemic—and that’s when I realized that we are all likely dealing with some level of burnout. So let’s take a step back and figure out how to help our people during tough times…

1. Be aware of what is going on.

I’ve had to slap myself upside the head a few times to remind folks that we are currently dealing with a situation that can rightly be referred to as “toxic stress.” We are still struggling as a society to get COVID under control, many of our economies are showing signs of recession, people have new routines, there are climate issues…I could go on.

I won’t because that would be too depressing. But the starting point of addressing stress and burnout is recognizing what is going on. You can’t solve a problem you can’t see.

If you are feeling a little stressed or under pressure, you can imagine that most people around you are feeling something similar.

2. Be open about these challenges.

In working with my clients, I try to give them room to talk with me—even about things that aren’t related to our projects. Sometimes, just getting things off your chest can just help you cope with challenging times.

Unfortunately, many of our organizations (and our culture) try to reinforce a feeling of stoicism around troubling times and encourage us to keep our issues pent up inside.

As a leader, you have to recognize that the default is unfortunately to not mention anything and to not seek help or a sympathetic ear. So, you may have to force this issue a little bit; that’s okay. The payoff for your team will be huge, and your ability to help people will make you a better leader in the long run.

3. Look for ways to release the pressure valve for folks.

Everyone has deadlines, meetings, internal and external pressures, and much more. We can’t control everything for our teams, just like they can’t control everything around them. But we can often find solutions to help relieve some of the pressure.

In North America, I see a lot of businesses letting their teams have Summer Fridays off. I also see team get-togethers at ballparks, picnics and other places where they can be outside together in an informal way (as mentioned above, anything simple where we can just provide an ear). You might encourage this by setting up “bull” sessions where there is no agenda.

Going even further, you might be able to relieve some of the deadline pressure or the feeling of endless connectivity by setting expectations around turning off devices, response times, or turning on your out-of-office notifications to get a break. The big idea here is that you have to actively engage in this process with your team.

In my world, I think I find that this is the key to everything when you are dealing with people, especially in an environment where everything can feel like a struggle. Put on the brakes and take a step back. Then, be deliberate in finding ways to give people an ear to bend, a feeling of support, and a little space to catch their breath.

Maybe I’m crazy, but we all need that right now.

What signs of burnout have you noticed in yourself and your co-workers, and how have you dealt with it? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And for more on this topic, read The Danger of Project Manager Burnout.


Posted by David Wakeman on: August 10, 2022 10:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

3 Ways to Lower Your Stress at Work

Categories: Best Practices

by Dave Wakeman

My mind is on summer break. Anytime I start thinking about my summer plans, I also think about how I can use this to teach a lesson. I think I’ve come up with a pretty neat way to tie a trip to the beach into the jobs that project managers do every day. Let me explain…

As PMs, the job is to manage stakeholders, communicate, adapt and adjust, put out fires, and to end up as a clearinghouse for everything that has to do with your projects. We also hope to achieve a break because we want people to be able to make their own decisions and to take actions independent of us doing all the thinking.

This is where my vacation comes in, because when I am away, I like to be totally away—independent of any decisions for my business. Which brings us to the question: “How do we create an environment where our teams go on without us?”

Let’s take a quick tour through three ideas:

1. Give people some autonomy.

I remember reading the book The 4-Hour Workweek, where Tim Ferriss talked about turning over problem solving to his outsourced sales and service team. His solution was to set parameters when the outsourced team should just act.

Such as, “If solving this problem costs $100 or less, you make the best decision and let’s move on.”

How can we apply that to our work?

As a PM, you might set parameters for your purchasing agents that tells them, “If the purchase is under $1,000, you do what you think is best.” The number isn’t important, the transfer of authority is.

The same idea applies for correcting errors, changing a process, or communicating an issue. Set up the parameters for when you need to know (or don’t need to know). Then, you stick with them…no matter what.

2. Don’t be the first to respond to everything.

Some of the worst habits that we encourage when leading a project or a business happen because we feel like we must do everything ourselves.

Look, I’m as guilty as the next person of doing that—responding to emails at all times of the day and night, trying to juggle what can feel like 30 or more different things at once.

When you give yourself a few moments to think about it though, it won’t work for taking a real vacation. It doesn’t allow you to be a really effective PM.

Why? Because you become a bottleneck.

How do we not become a bottleneck? First, you set those parameters like we discussed at the top.

After that, you want to be more in control of your time and how you use it.

Do you check your emails constantly? I used to. Now I don’t.

Instead, I might check them once an hour or every few hours even. And, on vacation, I’m likely to check my emails twice a day.

You can do this even in your normal workday. I do two things to force myself into better habits:

  • I schedule things aggressively, meaning that I set out my priorities for the day and I schedule those into my calendar so they have the time I need to complete them. I schedule writing posts like this one for the same recurring time every month. I get them done.
  • Second, I use a tool called “Focus To-Do,” which is an app that I have on my desktop, laptop, iPhone and iPad. It is a timer. I use the Pomodoro Method of 25-minute chunks of deep work, with five-minute breaks. It might seem too simple, but I’ve trained myself to set aside that 25 minutes to only focus on the task in front of me. If I finish early, maybe I check my email or do a different task. But the key is blocking out the distractions and setting the expectations that I’m only going to be available at certain times. That works well on vacation, sure. But it also works well all year round.

3. Be gentle on yourself and others.

Most mistakes aren’t fatal and can easily be fixed. Which makes the constant churn of work and the constant need to be “on” seem less necessary.

I worked on some political campaigns, and I’d train folks to write campaign ads. They’d always start with apprehension, because a lot of folks would snap under pressure, yelling and screaming about an ad that didn’t work the first time.

I took a different approach by saying, “If we mess up, we will fix it. No one is perfect.”

What happened was removing the pressure of perfection (or near perfection) enabled my teams to do better work. They felt freed from the need to get everything exactly right the first time because they knew that I was going to say, “We are off here, but let’s see what we can do to fix it.”

That’s something we should all be paying attention to. On vacation, I can turn over tasks to people and they feel comfortable doing them because they know I’m not going to freak about an error or something having to be redone.

In our projects, giving people that freedom probably gives us a break from being the bottleneck we talked about before. But it also gives our team members the chance to do their best work without fearing that wrath will rain down on them.

That may not mean you are on vacation, but certainly it can make your job easier…and that might really feel like just the break you need.

I’m off to the beach! See you next month

Posted by David Wakeman on: June 30, 2022 11:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

3 Ways Project Managers Can Build a Competitive Advantage

Categories: Best Practices

by Dave Wakeman

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the art of strategy. I did some research to rebuild my website during 2021 because I decided the pandemic was a good opportunity to create a new version of my business—and what I found was that around 40% of businesses have no clear, stated strategy. And, of the 60% that say they have a strategy, around 80% of those strategies don’t pass the test of actually being a strategy.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you know your ambition?
  2. Are you focused in your targeting?
  3. Do you know why someone picks you over someone else?
  4. Have you identified the resources you need to be successful?
  5. What will (and what should) your action list look like?

In a lot of ways, this looks like the role of a project manager as well. But where I really want to turn your attention to this time is to the third question about knowing why folks will pick you over someone else. Because I want to talk with you about having a competitive advantage in your role as a PM.

Let’s begin by defining a competitive advantage for our purposes as the skills, attitudes and competencies that you have that help you stand out and get your projects completed successfully even in very challenging environments.

Now, let’s look at some of the key competitive advantages that I see missing pretty regularly—ones that can change everything because you can work on improving them. Here are my top three:

1. Leadership skills: It can feel like we live in a world without leaders. Managers, yes. But real leaders feel few and far between.

In fact, I’ve seen a sharp reduction in the amount of “thought leaders” preaching leadership principles or highlighting the way that folks can be better leaders in their organizations. A leader is someone that uses persuasion, not just positional authority, to get their team to achieve the results they want.

It can also be improved by focusing on the right actions and attitudes. The first attitude is one of team over individuals. On projects, it can be easy to fall into the trap of looking at the task list and thinking of the individuals and the individual tasks independently. That’s often the road to trouble, since success doesn’t happen alone or in a vacuum. Helping your team see this is a strong start to success—and one you can work on as a PM.

Start here and master this attitude. This alone will help your leadership skills.

2. Vision: I understand how crazy this one can seem to a lot of you, but bear with me. Vision is often missing because we can all fail to see the big picture from time to time.

For PMs, it might not even always feel like an important skill—but it is, because having a feeling for the vision of what success will look like can be the difference between success and failure. This is due to the reality that in most instances, our projects are part of a larger ambition—one that might have many stakeholders and many smaller tasks or projects that lock into ours.

We need to know this, recognize what the entire scope of the environment will look like, and be able to share this with our teams. That’s vision.

You get better at vision by being willing to take a step back from the task at hand, connecting with key stakeholders and working to see the 50,000-foot view of the project. In my strategy work, the first thing we focus on is setting the “ambition” for the organization. This is simply figuring out what success will look like.

That’s vision, and if you put your organization’s overall thinking into the framework around ambition, you’ll have an easier time with it.

3. Communication skills: Since I started writing these pieces, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about communications skills because your ability to communicate effectively has arguably the most impact on the success or failure of your projects.

Why? Effective communications can help propel people to action, shortcut potential challenges, and draw people toward a successful conclusion of your project.

Where does communication fall short for most people?

  1. Too much jargon or complicated language: You have to speak to the level of your audience and their understanding, not just yours.
  2. A failure to listen: We are all guilty of waiting to talk at one time or another. But being an effective communicator requires a willingness to listen to the other person.
  3. A lack of ensuring the message got across. I have an affinity for making sure I got my message across by making myself the point of ineffective communication. I do this through offering up that I may not have shared everything, or that I may have been too technical. By making yourself the butt of the joke, you can lower people’s resistance to saying they didn’t understand something.

These three skills are competitive advantages—and are unfortunately often missing. But like a good strategy, you can focus your energy to give yourself a chance to be more successful. Give these skils a try, and let me know what happens.

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 03, 2022 01:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

5 Big Lessons Learned During 2021

Categories: Lessons Learned

by Dave Wakeman

Wow! That year went fast, didn’t it?

I don’t know if 2021 was better or worse than 2020 because the collective sense of uncertainty was exchanged for moments of great hope that moved back to great uncertainty.

I don’t bring that up to be a downer here in the period of annual reflection and resolutions, but as a way to introduce some of the ideas that really stuck with me in 2021 and that seem likely to help carry me—and, hopefully, you—forward into 2022 and beyond.

Here are my five big lessons learned from 2021:

1. Planning is more important than ever: I took some time over the first two years of the pandemic to go back to school and study up on brand strategy, marketing strategy and corporate strategy.

And, if you see a pattern there, you are paying attention because the pattern is that you have to know where you are going before you can start down the path to getting there.

In the best of times, we get pulled in a lot of different directions, but during the last two years while the pandemic has been our companion, we’ve seen it become more difficult to find space to think—and for any of our actions to seem relevant.

This makes going through the planning process even more important because we have to stop ourselves, slow down and think. That way we can actually do something productive with the limited amounts of focus many of us are struggling through right now.

2. Leadership counts: We’ve seen various forms of leadership around the world. Some good, some bad, and some that defy description.

What we have seen in looking at all of these is that leaders matter. Leadership counts because most of the time, leaders are the ones that are helping us know what to focus on, where to put our efforts, or just help us make sense of a situation.

In projects, this same idea applies because it can often be impossible to always know how our actions are going to play out in the larger sphere of a project without some guidance from our leaders.

3. Communicating effectively is key: I’ve spoken about how the message that the person receives matters more than the message you are delivering. That is something we see all day, every day right now.

As PMs and leaders, you likely have a good idea about what you are trying to get across. Sometimes, the idea that you are expressing gets lost in translation. I think this is where the advice to talk to me like a third grader comes from.

But the pandemic has highlighted the reality that the words you say can seem clear to you—but can be confusing to someone else for any number of reasons (like lack of a clear definition of the words, lack of a shared vocabulary around the problem, or cultural differences).

The list of challenges to getting your point across is probably limitless, but our bigger challenge is to beat back on those challenges so that our message does get through.

4. The importance of a vision: I don’t know a lot of project managers that use the term “vision.” We do hear a lot of “vision statements,” but most of the time they are fluffy and confusing. (By “vision,” I mean direction, ambition, and a way of communicating your goals.)

One of the big challenges that many countries have been dealing with during the pandemic is that there hasn’t been a really good vision for what ending the pandemic will look like. This lack of clear vision for success has made it easier for communications to be confused, leadership to look tepid and for life to feel like a bit of a free-for-all at times.

You can call your vision an ambition. You can call it a definition of success. Or, you can call it something else entirely.

The lesson I’ve learned is that if you don’t have one, it becomes easier for folks to act out of fear, panic or without a shared destination—causing more challenges than needed.

5. Ultimately, teamwork is a way forward: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the power of teamwork.

I did a podcast with the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers, Scott O’Neil, back in June. We talked about being part of a team. Scott coaches his daughter’s basketball team and I coach my son’s soccer team. We got philosophical for a few minutes, but the big key that came out was that both of us like to be part of a team, and that being a teammate has great benefits.

During 2021, I was reminded about this over and over as we saw teams work together to overcome big challenges—like the way that the vaccines were rolled out in communities across the United States. But I’ve also seen the breakdown of teams and how much damage bad team chemistry can do to the collective effort of a team, like the way that Juventus and Manchester United have often seemed like less than the sum of their parts.

These are the lessons I’ve learned this year. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but it is mine. Let me know what you learned in the comments below.

Happy new year!



Posted by David Wakeman on: January 18, 2022 09:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

3 Skills PMs Need in a Changing World

Categories: Best Practices

by Dave Wakeman

As we head into the homestretch of 2021, we are still being heavily impacted by the pandemic—and it seems like a society that is restructuring (or realigning) itself due to challenges and issues that the pandemic uncovered.

Reading this morning’s paper highlighted this to me. It got me thinking about the types of skills that a PM is going to need to highlight (or build) to ensure that they are on top of the ever-changing world we are living in.

Here are my top three:

1. Communication: I feel like any good list on what makes a good PM should always contain improving your communication skills, but in this regard the communication skills we need to improve are a bit more broad than normal.

In a general sense, we always want to remember that your communications need to be clear, concise and easy to understand. But as we expand here, we need to make certain that we have the ability to communicate with folks clearly in different cultures. This might mean recognizing how different phrases translate or different customs come across.

The key to being a successful communicator in a changing world is that you need to focus on the receiver of the communication—with an emphasis placed on things that might make your communications fall flat. Because even when you share a common language, the gulf in understanding can be significant.

2. Negotiation: We hear a lot about different issues that are being exposed around the world right now, like supply chain backups, staff shortages and demand issues. The list goes on and can contain hundreds of variations on each issue, but the key idea here is that even if you are dealing with a challenge, a good PM has to find ways to resolve issues. This comes down to negotiation. And what is negotiation but solution seeking at its finest?!

To be an effective negotiator in a changing world, you need to focus on your communications to begin with (like I mentioned above, communications seem to be the gateway for effective project leadership). But you also need to recognize how to frame ideas, challenges and solutions to give people win/win opportunities. You also need to be able to see different routes to success.

Probably the most important skill is to not look at negotiation as a winner-takes-all situation. Because in most instances, it’s going to be about accommodation and not capitulation.

3. Recruitment: I’ve written here over the years about how great a PM I think Alabama football coach Nick Saban is. One of his best skills is his ability to recruit talent to Tuscaloosa. Talent wins.

To be a successful PM in our new environments of change and uncertainty, you are going to need to focus on recruiting folks to your team to be successful as well.

Recruiting in this context doesn’t mean getting people to sign up as your “ride or die,” though it may require that at certain times. Instead, recruitment is likely a lot more flexible as you need people to dedicate a few hours to a challenge you are dealing with, sign off on a new piece of your project, or commit the resources necessary to help you keep your project moving forward.

As I write this out, I start thinking about how we recently discussed project management being a sales job. Then, I look at my list and realize that the key way that PMs are going to work forward now is through selling: their ideas, their partnership and their resources.

Maybe instead of a big change, the more things change the more they stay the same? Let me know what you think in the comments

Posted by David Wakeman on: October 26, 2021 09:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

I hope if dogs ever take over the world, and they choose a king, they don't just go by size, because I bet there are some Chihuahuas with some good ideas.

- Jack Handey