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.
3 PM Lessons I Needed to Relearn
Categories: Best Practices
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:
What would your list include to enable a post-pandemic transition back to work?
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:
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:
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:
What are some of the ways in which you have debiased group decisions? Let me know in the comments.
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?