By Christian Bisson
When I was asked to write about a project that inspired me in the last 50 years, I didn’t have to look back further than last year. That’s when I had the chance to act as scrum master for a newly formed team.
We had seven weeks to build software from scratch that would be demonstrated at a conference and used by hundreds of people. Since the conference was centered on artificial intelligence, it was mandatory that our demo used AI. Our idea was a game where the player spelled words using real sign language. The game was displayed on a television hooked up to a camera, which filmed the player’s hand.
The hand’s position was then recognized and matched to a letter of the alphabet. The player received points based on the speed at which he was spelling the words displayed on the screen.
We had a great team composed of two developers, a designer, two AI researchers, a product owner and me (scrum master). Our small, dedicated team would empower us to deliver the software we needed to build from A to Z.
Although concerned about the short time available, everyone was motivated and excited to build this amazing software, knowing the visibility it would get.
Since the scope wasn’t fully defined and the user experience was key, we needed to deliver usable increments to test. We needed a framework that would allow us to deliver quickly and adjust to the requirements as they were refined. Scrum was the obvious choice, even though most of the team was completely new to it. The majority of the team came from a software background, so they knew what it was on paper. However, for the AI researchers, it was completely unknown.
Many start off with the team they need, but then obstacles come their way and prevent them from moving forward. These could be anything from unavailable stakeholders to people being pulled off the team to poor requirements.
However, in this case, it was everything you would want from agility/scrum:
It was amazing to see the collaboration when we needed users to test; after a quick Slack message to everyone in the company, we would suddenly have a lineup of people available to play the game.
When I think back on our success, all I remember are the people working together to create something great. It wasn’t even about being “agile.” For the team it was, “Let’s get this done!” and for everyone who supported us, it was “Let’s help our colleagues!” There was nothing more, nothing less—exactly how it should be.
I’d love to hear about the most inspiring project you’ve worked on in your career. Please share below!
By Conrado Morlan
I’ve been running for eight-plus years—ever since my son suggested I do a half marathon in San Antonio, Texas, USA. So when a friend suggested I try a triathlon, I was ready for it. At that point, three years ago, I had 10 full marathons and 15 half marathons under my belt.
The triathlon includes three disciplines in a single event: swimming, cycling and running. It was the athletic challenge I needed, similar to the professional challenge I encountered when I moved across industries to keep leading and managing projects.
To get ready for the triathlon, I had to go back to the pool and start swimming after a long time away. I borrowed a road bike from a friend to start the formal training. We worked out on our own on weekdays and as a team on weekends.
That first experience transformed me into a triathlete enthusiast, which led me eventually to the Ironman 70.3. The "70.3" refers to the total distance in miles covered in the race, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.
The short distance triathlons helped prepare me for the Ironman 70.3. And as I’ve come to realize, learnings I’ve made along the way also apply to project management. These are my three main findings:
1. Expertise and Experimentation
Mastering all three disciplines in a triathlon can be difficult. My background is in running, but I was new to swimming and cycling. My coach gave good tips and workouts that helped me manage my bicycle on hills, navigate sharp turns and use all of my leg muscles to have a better stroke.
For swimming, I followed my instinct and experimented with the breaststroke. I soon felt confident in the pool and gradually in open waters. My experiment worked out, as I finished my swim in the Ironman 70.3 about 20 minutes ahead of the cut-off time.
As a project management practitioner, you may have mastered an industry-standard methodology and need to catch up with the new trends. In the triathlon, you may not transfer skills from swimming to cycling or running, but in project management, you can.
Communication, time management, and people management are required regardless of the methodology or best practice that will be used in the project. This gives you room to experiment. At project checkpoints, you can inspect, adapt and make the required changes to improve your project and be successful.
2. Transition Is Key
The transition is where the triathlete moves from one discipline to another, changing equipment. The area should be prepared in advance, with the gear set up in a way that helps the athlete have a smooth and fast transition. The time spent there may define the winner of the competition.
I would compare the transition area with the risk registry. The more prepared the project manager is, the less impact there will be to the project. The “gear” in your risk register will include the most impacting risk(s), the risk owner and the actions required to mitigate the risk if it arises. It’s a working registry, so the project manager should keep adding risks during the project as required.
3. Anybody Can Help You
A triathlon is not a team event, but that does not restrict the triathlete from getting support from others. Before the competition, the athlete may have followed a training plan supported by a coach, they might have been mentored by fellow triathletes and, last but not least, they likely benefited from family support.
It’s common for some triathletes to have a race sherpa on the competition day. The athlete and sherpa will discuss beforehand what tasks each will take on during the race. In short, a race sherpa will lend a hand whenever necessary and cheer for the athlete during the competition.
As a project manager, you have your project team, stakeholders and sponsor(s), but that does not restrict you from getting help from people outside the project. You may have an internal or external mentor, somebody in your organization who can be influential and help you address issues. I used to have a list of people in the organization I contacted in advance. I let them know about the project and asked them if I could ask for support if needed. That simple action helped me on several occasions when I faced a challenge.
If you are an athlete and a project manager, what lessons have you learned from practicing your favorite sport? Please share your thoughts below.
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.