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.
Make it or break it!
In the world of Business Transformation (BT), project management plays a critical part in the successful delivery of the business transformation programs to an extend where I can say it is a “Make it or Break it”
And why is that?
Imagine a school music play and the effort required to coordinate everything to get it done successfully. Of course, there is a lot of planning, coordination and execution that goes into it to produce a high quality school play
Now imagine an orchestra and the effort required to get this done successfully. In essence and to the inexperienced eye, the tasks may be similar but the effort and complexity are just a different ball game altogether
This is the same thing when it comes to managing a non-BT project and a BT project. The main tasks of initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and closing may look the same on the surface but underneath the skeleton, is a different level of complexity
Having said that, BT project management requires a different calibre of project managers to help get the beast out of the door while achieving business outcomes
To be on the same page, let’s define what business transformation is. Business transformation is a significant change that an organization goes through impacting its people, process and/or technology. The change is usually a complex one with long term business outcomes to be achieved
Project management becomes the core part of delivering the business transformation and ensure that business outcomes are achieved. The calibre of the BT project manager is therefore a lot more complex and at a higher level of maturity. Below are the key characteristics for a successful business transformation project manager
Exceptional Business Acumen
Visionary and can see beyond the short term goals
Can see different angles and prospective
Diversified skill set
Knows and understands failure
Knows the job and acts beyond it
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.
by Wanda Curlee
Imagine this: You’re walking in San Francisco, California, USA, when you spot an out-of-control trolley car headed toward a group of five people working on the track. You yell for them to get out of the way, but they don’t hear or see you. You’re standing next to a switch, which would send the trolley on a different track. But there’s one worker on the alternate track who, like the five other workers, doesn’t hear you or see the trolley.
You have a choice: Do you flip the switch? Do you take one life over five?
There is no right or wrong answer. It’s an ethical dilemma.
As project managers, we routinely face dilemmas, although they’re not typically as dramatic as the trolley scenario.
In project management, our answers to ethical dilemmas are typically driven by our moral compass or the company’s statement of ethics. Does that mean we are correct? Correct by whose standards?
The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) could bring new factors into our decision-making process. As project managers, we will use AI to make decisions or assist us with decision making. What the AI tool(s) decide to present can drive our decision making one way or another. What happens if AI presents us information that compromises the safety and efficacy of the projects? What happens if AI makes a decision that seems innocent but has dire consequences based on the logic tree—results that you, as the project manager, might not be visible to?
When revealing an ethical issue in a project management logic tree, it would seem that the decision making should be automatically deferred to the project manager. But whose ethics are used to decide when there is an ethical dilemma? What may seem a common decision to you is an ethical one to someone else.
AI is coming. It most likely will arrive in small bits, but eventually, it will be part of the project management landscape. So take steps to prepare now. Make sure you help with AI decision making when you can; participate in studies and surveys on AI and project management; study ethical dilemmas in project management and understand how the AI tool(s) are coded for ethics.
Be ready because project management is getting ready to change, not by leaps, but by speeding bullets in the near—and not so near—future.
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.