As a project manager, there’s perhaps nothing better than starting a new project. With it comes a fresh start and the promise of a successful conclusion. To me, it’s akin to starting a new year in school with new notebooks, where nothing has been written to spoil the fresh sheets of paper.
However, as we become more experienced as project managers, we’re called on more and more to assume control of a project already in motion. This might be triggered by a happy event, such as a promotion for the existing project manager, or a less-than-happy situation, such as a lack of progress on the project.
Assuming responsibility for a project that has already launched is a lot different than starting from the beginning. You won’t have the benefit of starting with a clean sheet of paper, and there will be things you need to do—and undo.
Here are three tips I always follow when assuming control of an existing project:
1. Assume Nothing
When starting a new project, you have the opportunity to perform mobilization and initiation activities to effectively set the project on a path to success. In addition, there are some early checkpoints where you can perform structured control actions to further assure the proper trajectory of the project.
While the existing project status reports can show the assumed disposition of a project, they may not reveal essential missing activities needed for project success. For example, an existing project might not have had the benefit of a thorough mobilization and initiation effort to properly set its course. In addition, there may be hidden or under-mitigated risks, emerging issues, stakeholder challenges and hidden dependencies that have not yet come to light.
When taking over an existing project, the first thing I do is review it in the same way I would a new project. Introducing a pause in project activities to perform a “soft reset” allows both confirmation of assumptions and validation of project progress.
In addition, this activity can reveal unseen factors that put the current project position in doubt. This is a good time to reforecast the remaining work. By assuming nothing about the project, the “soft reset” serves as a basis to properly transition the project towards success.
2. Match the Team to the Realistic Remaining Work
One of the most important facets of a soft reset is reforecasting the amount of remaining work. Use the existing forecast as a foundation for considering other factors that may influence the future progress of the project. These may include effort, scheduling conflicts (e.g., year-end holidays), upcoming business process changes and technology-readiness dependencies.
From the reforecast, compare these factors against the capacity and capabilities of the existing project team. Review whether you have the requisite skills and team members available for each phase of the project. In addition, consider the availability of key resources who cannot be readily substituted in case they are not able to work on the project. This examination of project resources by phase should include not only individual team members, but also team leads and third-party suppliers.
3. Engage More Frequently With the Most Accountable Stakeholder
While there are many inorganic components of a project, such as deliverables and status reports, often the most critical components revolve around the organic nature of people. Having strong executive sponsorship, a structured governance engagement model and open communication all enable project success.
When you are introduced as the new project manager on an existing effort, some change management work will need to be done to ensure a smooth transition.
Given the myriad stakeholders involved in a project, who should you start with? The typical consideration is to start with the most senior leadership stakeholder, who is typically also the project sponsor.
I think, however, a better place to start is with the most accountable stakeholder. This would be the person who after the project is implemented would manage the new solution to achieve the project objectives. In addition, this person would likely have the greatest knowledge of requirements and implementation considerations, which would be valuable to your soft reset.
Set Your Team Up for Success
Assuming control of an existing project should have that same level of attention to detail and precision. Now that you are leading this existing project, be sure to consider the factors shared above that confidently allow you to say, “I have the controls.”
When assuming existing projects, what sort of activities do you perform as part of a transition? I’d welcome other thoughts to help make us all better project managers.
A great emphasis is often placed on the selection of a project manager. Much has been written about the need for training, credentials, experience and ability to engage with stakeholders as the keys to a successful project.
But, I have not seen a similar level of attention paid to the selection of project team members. In fact, I believe many project stakeholders think there are only two roles on a project: project manager and everyone else. It’s often thought that project managers can surmount every difficulty a project may encounter—and that other team members are less of a consideration.
In reality, the selection of team members is as important as the selection of a project manager.
Here are some techniques I use to make good choices as I put together a project team:
Every project has a dynamic driven by the urgency of completion. This dynamic varies by the rigidity of the finish date, required project duration and the number of outside dependencies. Examples of projects with high levels of urgency include regulatory compliance, merger and acquisition and internal corporate mandate projects. Projects with lower completion urgency tend to be longer in duration, but also often are quite complex in nature—think transformations, large system integrations, etc.
The dynamics around urgency of completion help shape the selection criteria for project team members. For higher urgency completion projects, I tend to go with people who exhibit high creativity and the ability to deal with high uncertainty. For lower urgency completion projects, I typically select people who are more measured in their actions and show consistent execution over long periods of time.
I also try to select one person for the team who has the opposite social style as others to serve as a counterpoint, which can be very healthy for a project. This ensures that a balanced perspective is being employed by the project team to resolve issues.
2. Look for Learning Experiences
When selecting team members, I ask them to share the greatest learning experiences they’ve had on past projects. These learning experiences can take the form of working on troubled projects, handling issues with project team members or managing adversity in their personal lives.
These learning experiences build confidence and character that is desired not only for the person being selected for the project, but also for mutual growth with other people on the project. Effective project resources tend to exhibit strong performance in the face of adversity. Project team members with these skills are essential to building a strong, synergistic project team.
A lack of learning experiences tends to indicate a more narrow range of capabilities, which would not contribute to building a strong project team.
Project managers are often pulled in many different directions, which can slow a project’s progress.
To remedy this situation, make one of your team members your second-in-command on the project. They can backfill in times of high engagement to help resolve issues and keep the project team going.
The other benefit to having a second-in-command is the valuable development opportunities the role provides. He or she gets to experience active project management while having the safety of the project manager for guidance. I have found over the years that people who perform well in second-in-command roles perform extremely well when they become full-fledged project managers.
I once had a senior project manager tell me, “Your team is only as strong as your weakest link.” Picking the right team is as important as selecting the project to manage. A rush to staff team members quite often leads to a re-staffing exercise that consumes precious time and energy, not to mention being disruptive to the team. Considerable care and patience are required to build an effective project team.
What good and bad choices have you made when selecting team members for a project? I’d like to hear about them.
Find Purpose to Unlock Exceptional Performance
Human Aspects of PM,
New to Project Management,
Categories: Benefits Realization, Best Practices, Career Help, Change Management, Communication, Complexity, Facilitation, Generational PM, Human Aspects of PM, Human Resources, Leadership, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Mentoring, New to Project Management, PMI, Program Management, Roundtable, Strategy, Talent Management, Teams, Volunteering
Find Purpose to Unlock Exceptional Performance
By Peter Tarhanidis, MBA, PhD
There are three common maturity levels in developing project management leadership:
It takes many years to cultivate the skills necessary to execute complex initiatives of all sizes and types. And project leaders may find gratification in the personal development to sustain their performance, as well as their project achievements.
However, over time, it’s not unusual to lose sight of that passion, excitement and engagement for executing initiatives. Instead, the project leader may default to simply providing the project management administrative activities of project execution. This reversal of development is a leadership pitfall and creates a chasm between high performance and exceptional performance.
One way to bridge the chasm is to be purpose-driven. A defined purpose distinguishes oneself as a distinctive as a brand. A brand is underpinned by one’s education, abilities and accomplishments. By identifying what is central to your interests and commitments, project leaders can re-engage with purpose and unlock exceptional performance. This can be broad or can be very specific in a subject expertise.
I have use the following method to find my brand and define my purpose:
Having used this approach to define my purpose, I learned I enjoy the macro view of the firm. I regularly coach leaders and help them develop their teams. Therefore, I like to simultaneously drive toward exceptional performance to achieve a firm’s mission and to advance the needs of society.
Please share your purpose and any examples of exceptional performance you achieved toward that purpose.
High-Performance Teams Are Purpose-Driven
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Human Aspects of PM,
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By Peter Tarhanidis, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Program teams should collaborate like a world-class orchestra.
This ideal state of team engagement and performance requires the presence of several key elements, including an engaged sponsor, a governance committee, a project manager and a status dashboard to communicate performance.
However, maximizing this level of performance is especially challenging when working with cross-functional groups, external stakeholders and shareholders. This increases the complexity of the human performance aspects of team management.
I recall one assignment I worked on that required the team to design and build a new centralized model to bring together three different operations. The team was given two additional challenges. The first challenge was to consolidate disparate teams into two geographic centers. They also had to reduce the overall timeline from 18 months to 10 months.
These challenges exacerbated how teams were not working well with their counterparts. They quickly became dysfunctional and lost their purpose. The project was crashing.
Stepping into this situation I decided to conduct a stakeholder analysis. I used this approach as an intervention method to understand the underlying themes. The analysis revealed the team:
After reflecting on the team’s feedback, I realized that most members wanted to find meaning in their work. It seemed no one was developing their sense of shared purpose and putting their strengths to work toward this program.
I decided I needed to re-invest them as members of the team. To get the team back to performing well, I:
This approach strengthened the program and delivered on the challenges.
The lesson learned is, do not simply apply methods and approaches in complex program delivery. Manage the team’s purpose and establish shared values as an important driver of overall delivery.
How do you manage that purpose and invest in high-performing teams?
By Peter Tarhanidis, M.B.A, Ph.D.
Many organizations are shifting their traditional operating models to include new innovative collaborations and social networks to sustain economic growth. These new operating models, however, challenge the future of leadership.
Most operating models used today were designed in the industrial age. In these models, the division of labor is by specialization, which is hierarchical in nature. This approach has been analyzed and debated by philosophers including Plato and economists such as Adam Smith, whose analysis is incorporated in current organizational designs defining a company’s value chain. The advantage of this approach is that it drives increases in productivity and efficiency by allocating teams by their skillset.
Yet companies are boxed in today. They have become efficient and productive, but are at a disadvantage in sustaining innovation.
Companies are challenged to design and integrate innovative operating models to continue to drive economic growth. Some ways companies are leveraging new operating models to drive innovation include creating internal groups to access and fund startups and sharing resources with external research centers to drive external collaborations that drive new product pipelines.
These innovative operating models challenge leaders to work collaboratively across value chains and external business partners. To meet that challenge, there must be a shift in a leader and team skill sets.
The organizational design shifts from a division of labor and specialization to one that taps into knowledge workers and social networks. This shift—to forge new innovations and operating models—challenges leaders to define new behaviors, styles, skills and professional networks to sustain economic growth.
Project leaders and their teams have been at the forefront of working across these emerging models, navigating both internally as productivity experts, externally as innovation collaborators, and professionally to develop social networks to foster and sustain economic growth.
One’s future as a leader comes down to navigating your development against these current organizational trends. One approach I find helpful is to define personal 360-degree feedbacks. Start with three simple questions to determine where you need to develop and build from, such as:
Having used this personal approach, I learned the following three themes to form my development opportunities:
One must then consider what actions they should commit to developing — whether it is leadership behaviors and styles, business relationships or knowledge — to lead today’s organizations and sustain economic growth and relevance.