By Wanda Curlee
PMI is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, an occasion that has led me to reflect on projects from my past. While I don’t have 50 years of experience, I do have 30.
Over those years, I have been a project manager or project team member across many industries. But by far, I’ve learned the most on Department of Defense (DoD) projects. In fact, my very first project was a DoD project. I’ve found that in this industry, the project manager is responsible for all aspects of a project. And when I say all, I mean all.
The project manager needs to understand the contract from beginning to end. From my first federal project to the most recent one, the contract was well worn, as I would look at it many times a day.
On a federal project, there are various sections of the contract. For example, Section B describes how the supplies or products are to be formatted and supplied. Section C is always the statement of work (SOW). Other sections provide the names of administrative and technical contacts, how invoices should be formatted, when the invoices need to be submitted and what supporting information is needed.
There is a section that lists all the rules, regulations and laws that the contractor must follow and obey. This list usually runs more than five pages, printed on both sides and single-spaced.
The statement of work is also always very detailed. Think about a contract for a nuclear submarine, an aircraft or some other vessel—the SOW would be tens of thousands of pages. While I never managed those types of contracts, I did oversee some pretty intense technology programs, where the SOWs were thousands of pages.
I learned that having a team I could trust was instrumental in delivering a complex project. Trust meant that the team understood the needs of the project. They knew when deliverables were due and what the client expected, and they kept everyone informed if there were issues or delays. The team also kept detailed records and updates. This meant the project manager should never be blindsided, and with that, neither should the client.
Of course, I did not learn all this on my own. I had a wonderful boss/coach who saw my potential. He took the time to explain why things were happening the way they were. I was allowed to work in different departments to learn how each area affected the project. To this day, I am very thankful, and I pay it forward. I have always taken the time to mentor and coach those on my project teams or in organizations I ran. The greatest reward was to see those I mentored surpass me in rank within the organization.
When I think back to the moment where I earned my chops, it was a U.S. Air Force project to design a paperless office and non-hackable email system. Don’t laugh! As you may have guessed, the initiative was not successful. Within two years, the government canceled the project. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is this: Unsuccessful projects provide a wealth of learning, maybe even more than successful projects.
What have been the most influential projects you’ve worked on throughout your career?
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.
By Wanda Curlee
I recently flew across the country with my two grandchildren, both under the age of three. While their mother was with me, we were not seated together., so I was understandably a little concerned about the trip. (And for the people around me.)
The trip did make me wonder, however, if airlines could take a project management approach when small children are traveling. Yes, they allow families with small children to board at the beginning of the process, but is there more that could be done?
All they would need is better stakeholder management.
Before the day of travel, the airline could send tips to those traveling with children. The tips can focus on what will help the child and the parent survive the lengthy trip, such as how to help kids with equalizing ear pressure, how to help with meltdowns and what to pack to keep the child entertained.
Next, for the day of travel, help those traveling with kids understand the rules. I was rather rudely told that I had to have the child in my lap for takeoff and landing. The child was standing between the seat and me (we all know there is not much room) and was between my legs. He was happy while in this position. Once he went into my lap, he went into meltdown mode. While this was not the problem of the flight attendant, it would have been nice to have known the rules and be able to prepare my grandchild for the final part of the flight.
The airline could also provide a small goodie bag for a child. There could be lollipops to help with ears, a list of the rules, a paper book—maybe a couple of pages for the children to draw or color. Maybe even some plastic bags that seal to take care of those dirty diapers that may occur during flight.
During the flight, the flight attendant could reach out to travelers with small children just to let the traveler know that he or she is there to help. I know at the end of flights, during landing, the flight attendant thanks me for being a million miler. So, just saying hi to the mom, dad or grandparent traveling with the small child will go a long way.
This is a little out of the way of what is usually discussed on the blog but taking a better approach to stakeholder management to help families that are traveling with young ones can be beneficial for the traveler, the child and those on the plane sitting around the child. Let’s make traveling a bit more humane for all involved.
Imagine you're a project manager reporting to a senior director of a subsidiary, with a dotted line to a group director in the HQ. In a meeting, you're caught in their crossfire. What would you do?
If you’re wondering whether getting involved in the politics is mandatory, the answer is yes. What if you wish to stay away? You can, but you’ll put your career at risk.
There’s no need to be afraid of organizational politics. Often the top performers are those who have mastered the art. In the organizational hierarchy, there is a level beyond which winning at politics is more important than mastering any technical skills.
What Are Organizational Politics?
Workplace politics are simply the differences between people at work—whether they’re contrasting opinions or conflicts of interest. They’re important, because you need these politics to:
What Aren’t Organizational Politics?
Politics aren’t about cheating or taking advantage of other people. They are not about:
It is not about me over you (win-lose), but both of us together (win-win).
Why Are Organizational Politics Inevitable?
You can’t avoid them, because the following are all sources of politics:
Some of these factors are always present in an office, making politics inevitable.
How to Win in Organizational Politics
The most common reactions to politics at work are either fight or flight, which can have harmful consequences. Remember, we always have a choice to approach the situation and then hold on, understand or work out a viable solution.
Here are few steps you can take:
Know Enterprise Environmental Factors:
The first step is to understand the source. You can put together a winning solution if you understand factors influencing your project execution, such as organizational culture, organizational structure, various communication channels, organizational policies, individual behavior and risk tolerance of stakeholders.
Politics always come down to the people who are involved. Until we understand their interests, power, influence, buy-in and support, it may not be easy to prepare a strategy. There are various tools like the power/interest grid, buy-in/influence grid, stakeholder engagement matrix, etc. that help in stakeholder analysis and preparing strategies. There are tools like power/interest grid, buy-in/influence grid, stakeholder engagement matrix etc. that help in stakeholder analysis and preparing strategies. In fact, it is a good idea to always maintain a stakeholder register so you have information ready to quickly deal with a situation.
Discover Hidden Agendas:
Hidden agenda aren’t always as bad as they appear. Many times a personal objective is driving someone’s actions. Therefore, it is necessary to talk to the people and understand the driving factors behind their opinion and actions to strengthen your strategy.
Somehow, we are encouraged to think that someone has to lose in order for us to win. We see our colleagues as rivals instead of as our team members. This may be because of the organization’s politics. We have to find a solution that not only makes you win, but others too. This may not be easy, but understanding other people’s point of view and putting your feet in their shoes will help you find a win-win solution.
Build your network:
One of the best ways to do this is through networking, which builds relationships. This will help you better understand other people’s viewpoints and get their support in facilitating a solution. Networking is also very effective in getting buy-in and reaching consensus.
By taking these steps, you can propose win-win solutions and steer your projects to success.
What ideas do you have for dealing with organizational politics? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I look forward to reading about your experiences.
by Dave Wakeman
I recently came across some of management guru Peter Drucker’s thoughts on project management.
As often happens with Drucker’s writing, the lessons he wrote about many years ago are still applicable today.
In his thinking about project management, Drucker came up with the idea that it really came down to three ideas: objectives, measurements and results.
Let’s take each of these areas and think about how we should approach them today.
Objectives: Many projects get stuck before they even begin, due to a poor framing of the project’s objectives. We should be undertaking our projects only when we have moved through the project-planning phase to such an extent that we have a strong grasp of what we are hoping to achieve.
These objectives shouldn’t be fuzzy or wishy-washy. They should be solid and rooted in the overall strategy of the organization you are performing the project for.
This means you have to ask the question: “Does this project move us toward our goals?”
If the answer is “yes,” it’s likely a project that should be launched.
If the answer is “no,” it’s likely a project that needs to be fleshed out more, rethought or not undertaken at all.
Measurements: Drucker is famous for this adage: What gets measured gets managed.
In thinking about project management, measurements aren’t just about being able to improve project delivery. They’re also essential to ensure the project is headed in the right direction.
To effectively measure our projects, we need to have laid out key measurements alongside the project’s objectives.
The measurements should be specific, with expected outputs and completion dates, so you can affirm whether you are on schedule, behind schedule or ahead of schedule.
At the same time, the measurements should inform you of your progress as it compares to your strategic goals.
Results: Ultimately, projects are about results.
To paraphrase another great thinker, Nick Saban: If you focus on doing your job right on each play, you’ll put yourself in a position to be successful at achieving your goals.
Saban coaches U.S. football, but this works just as well for all of us in project management.
If we are focusing our energy on tying our projects to our organization’s strategy, through this strategy we focus our project efforts on the correct objectives in line with our strategy. Then we use those objectives to measure our progress against the strategy. We should be putting ourselves in a position to get the results that we need from our projects.
These results should be measured as positive outcomes. In Saban’s case, that’s wins. In your case, it might be a new technology solution, a successful new ad campaign or a profitable fundraising effort.
To me, reviewing Drucker’s thoughts on project management is a reminder: Even though there is a constant pull of new technologies, never-ending demands on our attention and a world where change feels accelerated, sometimes the best course of action is to step back, slow down and get back to the basics.