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
Lynda Bourne
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
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Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Wanda Curlee
Christian Bisson
Ramiro Rodrigues
Soma Bhattacharya
Yasmina Khelifi
Sree Rao
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Jorge Martin Valdes Garciatorres
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Recent Posts

How To Establish Your Credibility as a Project Manager in a New Environment

Are Project Managers Salespeople?

The Planning Paradox

Project Management: Talent or Skill?

Project Management Is The Great Equalizer

Project Management Is The Great Equalizer

In my project management career, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on different projects all over the world. As with most things in life (like having a flat auto tire or forgetting to pay the electric bill), projects mirror the practical realities of life. One of the takeaways from those experiences has been the commonality of successful project management approaches no matter the geographical location of the projects.

A key characteristic that I have observed over time is how projects and project management resemble a meritocracy independent of personal bias. Projects need to be complete with desired outcomes in a specific period of time. As one completes ever more large and complex projects, one grows in their career as a project manager. This career growth occurs regardless of the race, gender or other characteristics of the project manager.

As with many other merit-based professions such as healthcare, aviation, athletics and science, the introduction of personal bias with project management would be detrimental to the completion of any project. That’s why project management as a profession is a great equalizer given its heavy dependence on the skills and capabilities of a project manager.

In thinking about how project management is a great equalizer, I offer the following thoughts:                                                           

1. The project doesn’t know who is managing it. Projects are an interesting construct that is hard to categorize under the typical laws of physics; they don’t have weight, exhibit motion or temperature. Projects do have the characteristic of being a collection of activities and assets that need to be brought together to produce desired outcomes.

In this regard, a project by definition is immune from any personal bias; it’s a matter of solving a three-dimensional problem using people, process and technology. A project manager needs to be skilled at resource, schedule, dependency and stakeholder management in order to solve for desired outcomes. The project itself does not prefer the personal background of the project manager; it awaits the proper project management disciplines to be employed in order to complete its required objectives.

2. Successful project managers find the best people. People represent one of the key factors in any project. When compared against process and technology components, the acquisition of the best people plays a more significant factor in the success of any project. However, the acquisition of people for a project also poses the possibility for personal bias. As a project manager, you have to be able to find the best people for the project independent of subjective perceptions.

A CEO of a global company once said it took him 20 years to get a point where he could identify good people more than half the time. My observations of project managers early in their careers bear this out; they tend to be more subjective in selecting resources that they like and perceive would work well on their team; read this behavior as easier to manage. The more experienced project managers more discreetly evaluate competencies than subjective factors; this is key, as no matter the personal affinity or how easy (or difficult) the person is perceived to manage, the most critical dimension of people for a project is their competencies. 

3. Project management metrics show no bias. One of my favorite quips about project metrics, especially when they are not favorable, is “You can’t beat the laws of physics.” If metrics show a project to be over budget or with late milestones, those are intractable project “laws of physics” that need to be addressed by the responsible project manager.

To a great degree, project metrics are designed to not show any personal bias. They are a physical expression of project reality that can’t be influenced by personal factors of the project manager. Metrics are equal in every regard to serve as an unbiased foundation from which remedial project actions are taken.

In my early years as a project manager, I have to admit I made every possible project management judgement error on my projects. Over time and with some valuable guidance from experienced project managers, I grew into leading ever larger initiatives. As part of that growth path, I observed that the most experienced project managers had left any notion of personal bias behind in their project management execution. Their focus on the core dynamics of a project, finding the best people and anticipating conditions that would lead to unfavorable metrics were key factors in their success.

I welcome any commentary on the concept of project management being one of the purest forms of meritocracy that by design can’t rely on personal bias to achieve success.

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: August 19, 2021 05:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

3 PM Lessons I Needed to Relearn

Categories: Best Practices

by Dave Wakeman

I just got back from taking a road trip, and while I was away for the month, I had my website rebuilt from the ground up. It turned out nicely and makes me look like I really know what I’m talking about.

All kidding aside, having to put my website in the hands of an expert in web development taught me some lessons about project management that either I forgot or needed to learn.

Let me share a few of them with you…

1. Being clear on the outcome you hope to achieve is crucial. At the end of the project, I debriefed with my web developer and she said that the nice thing about working with me is that I respect her work and don’t micromanage.

As we continued talking, I realized that the reason I didn’t micromanage the project was because I was pretty clear in the project brief with exactly what I needed to achieve and what success looked like to me.

Due to that, I was able to give her clear instructions and allow her to do the work I brought her in to do.

In managing projects, all of us should be aware that if we spend a lot more time at the start of the project being clear about the results, we are likely to need to spend less time micromanaging or “handling” things during the project.

2. Communication is key. I’ve been talking about the people aspect of projects since I started writing this column back in 2012. In doing a project to rebuild myself under constraints imposed on me by the pandemic, I remembered the importance of clear communication.

In the past, I know that I have written that the keys to successful communication are for your messages to be:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Easy to understand

Over the years, maybe I’ve been guilty of getting away from those three principles, but I was reminded that these are essential communication qualities and that it is good to keep them in mind—especially when managing remotely.

3. Let experts be experts. One of the key ideas in my project management talks and writing is that as the leader, you can’t be the smartest about every aspect of your project. That’s why you work so hard to build strong teams.

As often as I remind myself, I know that I can still slip up and throw out bad ideas.

It causes two problems when I do this:

  • First, it slows down things because the people on my team often have to explain to me why I am a knucklehead and why I am wrong.
  • Second, it slows the team members down because they have to do their work and they end up thinking about the way that they are going to have to justify something to me. Even when that isn’t what I really want, my actions tell them something different.

Strangely, my website project came together very well and I managed to keep myself from micromanaging the whole process. I was reminded that as a leader you have to:

  1. Be clear in your vision
  2. Communicate effectively
  3. Give experts room to do their job

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Posted by David Wakeman on: August 11, 2021 01:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

What’s In Your Return-To-Work Contract?

During the long duration of the pandemic, each of us had to shift our work/life balance. We had to curate a new workday schedule, perhaps adding more flexibility to support multiple needs between work and family. A changing focus with customer and colleague engagement, repurposing commuting time, tending to family needs, caring for those affected by COVID-19, and supporting relief efforts are just some of the changes we had to adapt to. The pandemic forced each of us to make personal and conscious ethical decisions on the tradeoffs, but most have of us have set into a new work/life balance.

After almost 20 months, the world is deploying COVID-19 vaccines under health authorities like the U.S. FDA and Europe’s EMA, who have expanded access protocol for emergency use. The world is hopefully on a trajectory toward a post-pandemic world. Many organizations have established their return-to-work policies, criteria, and expectations of colleagues. One may observe a continuum of return-to-work guidelines built by organizations as a highly collaborative model focused on high-touch customer experience, an innovation-driven design model, or task-based transactional work. Each organization is calling to us to spend some time back in the office or in front of our stakeholders.

How does this affect us, and what do we do to prepare? Our choices can be to simply go back to a pre-pandemic “normal”; stay in the work-from-home pandemic style; or re-engage in a post-pandemic style. Regarding this last choice, we should consider how to maneuver ourselves into a post-pandemic style while still maintaining the agility of working from home. This disruption to our current way of working creates a sense of stress and anxiety as it asks us to re-engage. One must re-learn and adapt to new behaviors and approaches.

One opportunity to be better prepared may be to create a personal contract for the post-pandemic work world. The contract can be a statement or a list of priorities. Here are some tips that I will use to help make the transition better and reset myself:

  1. Revisit what you and your colleagues are professionally devoted toward, and why.
  2. Curate the difference of a workday at home versus in the office (or traveling).
  3. Coordinate specific dates and times for in-person versus virtual meetings.
  4. Make lunch plans with newly hired colleagues.
  5. Start a back-to-work focus group to help facilitate colleagues’ transition back.
  6. Be clear about your constraints on social distancing, work hours, and time off.
  7. Schedule healthy eating times, sleeping and exercise habits, family needs, etc.
  8. Identify your new peeves and triggers; be mindful of behavioral changes (from both you and your colleagues).
  9. Start a journal and chronicle your path and learnings.
  10. Remember: Everyone has a different path—but together we will get through it!

What would your list include to enable a post-pandemic transition back to work?

Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: July 20, 2021 12:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

How To Foster Effective Group Decision Making

Categories: Best Practices

Individual decision making is fraught with biases and fallacies. In one of my earlier blogs I talked about common fallacies and biases in program management. We can mitigate these biases by using group decision-making techniques, where you encourage participants in a group to brainstorm a solution/decision. Group decision making taps into the collective intelligence of the group and increases the acceptance of the decision by all the group members.

However, group decision making has its own drawbacks. A couple of key drawbacks are:

  • Groupthink – A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.
  • Possible domination by the most vocal or senior person.

We can avoid these drawbacks by using some facilitating techniques that bring out dissenting opinions and give everyone in the group a chance to present their thoughts/ideas.

Here are three facilitating techniques that we can use to bring out dissenting opinions:

  1. Devil’s advocate method – As the name indicates, in this technique we identify one person or a subgroup to act as “devil’s advocate.” One subgroup iden=tifies the solution or decision and corresponding assumptions. This subgroup then presents the decision to the “devil’s advocate” subgroup/person. Responsibility of the devil's advocate subgroup/person is to present a contrarian view and poke holes into the assumptions and the decision/solution. Intent of this facilitating technique is to think through alternate scenarios.
  2. Dialectical inquiry method – This is very similar to the devil’s advocate method. The main difference is that in this method, one subgroup is assigned to think through one option and the other subgroup is assigned to think through the opposite option. Both the subgroups then come back and talk about both the options. The team then comes to a final option based on the group discussion. One key thing to remember when using this technique is to ensure there is diversity in terms of gender, experience, personality types etc. when creating the two subgroups.
  3. Step-ladder method – In this technique…
  • In the first round we ask everyone in the group to come up with their own ideas. 
  • In the second round we bring in two people, have them present each others’ ideas and agree on a temporary decision/solution.
  • In the third step, the third person presents his/her idea to the first two and the three of them come to a temporary decision/solution.

This continues until everyone has a chance to present their ideas in an unbiased way and their feedback is incorporated into the final decision. This is a time-consuming process, so use this cautiously.

In situations where we end up with more than one decision/solution, we can use objective criteria to converge into a single solution/decision. Here are a couple of frameworks we can use to make rational decisions:

  1. Mediating assessment protocol: Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, suggested this approach for making important strategic decisions. In this method, we identify assessments or criteria that are important for analyzing a decision. We then assign individuals to conduct the assessments. Once all the assessments are done independently, the group then makes a collective decision based on individual assessments. Interviews conducted by major tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook follow this protocol, wherein there are multiple interview loops like system design, coding and behavioral assessments that are conducted by individual interviewers. A group decision is made on the interview candidate based on these individual assessments.
  2. Relative weighting: In this method, we identify a set of criteria that are important in making the decision and assign relative weight for each of those criteria. We evaluate the decisions based on the relative weights of the criteria and pick the one that has the maximum weight. As an example, when we must finalize a list of features to implement, we can assign complexity, feasibility and impact as the criteria—and each of these have relative weights. We then evaluate the features against these criteria.

What are some of the ways in which you have debiased group decisions? Let me know in the comments.

Posted by Sree Rao on: July 16, 2021 08:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

3 Tips for Avoiding the Single Point of Failure

Categories: Agile, Best Practices, Teams

By Christian Bisson

In this article, I refer to “a single point of failure” as the situation when a company utilizes someone with unique expertise/knowledge that no one else has, or is the only one who does a particular task. By having these single points of failure within a team, you risk facing problems if that person becomes unavailable—or even worse, just isn’t part of the team anymore.

Fortunately, there are various ways to mitigate this!

1. Rotate roles within the team

There are several tasks that often fall by default on the scrum master or the “nice guy’s” shoulder. A good example is sharing a screen so everyone can see the backlog for a planning or a refinement session, or sharing the board in a daily scrum (if it’s not physical).

If that person is not there, then the meeting becomes less effective because the logistics (using Jira, screen sharing, etc.) is not necessarily well known by everyone.

By having a rotation system (by random name picking, for example), these tasks are eventually done by everyone and all can be efficient doing it eventually; therefore, the team doesn’t become dependent on a single person to know simple things like updating the story points of a ticket using Jira. 

I once came across a team that couldn’t do its own planning without the scrum master sharing the screen and going step by step with them, and it had been doing it for several months!

2. Conduct knowledge transfer sessions

This can be done in many ways, but I’ve seen a lot of teams planning a weekly knowledge transfer session, where each time someone presents something to the others (a new tool, something they just coded, etc.). Another good way for developers to share knowledge is for them to code pair. That way, the code itself is known by two people instead of just one; throw in peer reviews on top of that and you will be in better shape if someone leaves or is on vacation.

The idea is to avoid having only one person knowing something; always aim for a minimum of two people. If you want to identify gaps, there is always the classic “lottery winner” scenario you can use, which is to keep in mind that it’s possible for someone to win the lottery and therefore become unavailable without notice. Although it might seem unlikely, the idea is to ask yourself: For every member of the team, what would be the impact if that happened?

3. Rotate members among teams

This practice is debated, but I feel it’s a good way to make sure the knowledge is properly spread. The idea here is to have a rotation system of team members among the teams. This practice is questioned by some, who will argue that to be effective, teams need to be stable—and changing it will make it regress to the “forming” stage.

That is indeed important to keep in mind when thinking about how/when the rotation will occur, but in the long run, people will be accustomed to working in all the various teams—and also be knowledgeable in all the different pieces each team takes care of. This gives a much higher flexibility depending on deliverables/vacations/etc., and lowers the risk of losing knowledge on something within the organization.

What tips do you recommend?

Posted by Christian Bisson on: July 02, 2021 11:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)
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