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.
by Christian Bisson, PMP
Project success is typically defined as being completed within budget, schedule, and scope, and that has been imprinted so much in project managers’ mind that it blinds them to other important aspects that defines a project’s success.
This aspect of project success seem to be more and more popular, and with reason, if clients are not happy, they will shutdown the projects, or proceed with another organization. If your project is on budget, delivered on time, and does exactly what it should be doing, but the client is so unhappy that they ceases to work with the organization, can you consider the project a success?
For example, if you focus so much on being on budget/schedule/scope, that you decline everything the client asks for without a second thought, chances are the client will not want to work with you long term. On the opposite side, giving everything the client wants and ending up late or 200% above budget is not an acceptable alternative. You or the team will often need to be creative to find ways to balance things out, and properly managing the client’s expectations is also key top this.
Another very important aspect of project success is the value it’s adding. A project that is doing what was planned, but ends up being useless, is not a success.
For example, if you create a great website, the client loves the design, the development phase had only few minor issues that were fixed rapidly so the team is happy, the project is delivered on time, on budget, and does what it’s supposed to do, however, users that go on the website are completely incapable of finding the information they need, and they end up always calling customer service instead, then is that really a success?
It’s important to identify right from the start what metrics will be used to calculate the project’s success, and tie those metrics to features of the website as you go to make sure a feature is not useless or solves an issue that has nothing to do with the project’s objectives..
The organization that has provided the services needed to make the project happen is also a key aspect to look at to define the project success, and unfortunately often due to lack of transparency from management, can be a challenge.
For example, there are projects that the organization’s management know they will lose money on, but for them it is considered a long-term investment to bring more business. If that’s not communicated, the project manager will see the project as a failure because it’s over budget.
It’s important to have visibility on the organization’s goals and expectations around the project in question.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you use other aspects to define project success?
by Kevin Korterud
I always enjoy hearing about the early careers of the project managers I meet. In almost every conversation, the subject turns to when they were team members being led by a highly capable senior project manager who provided guidance in starting up, executing and sometimes turning around projects.
It’s also not uncommon to hear stories of the worst project manager they ever worked for. These stories, while not as glowing, also influenced their careers around what not to do. By probing a bit deeper, they offered up observations of certain behaviors that created havoc, dissatisfaction and quite often failed projects.
From these observations of the worst-ever project manager, I started to put together my own thoughts on who I would select for this inglorious label. After careful consideration, I arrived at the only logical choice: me. In my early years as a project manager I managed to consistently demonstrate all of the behaviors of poor project managers.
Here are my votes for the most significant behaviors that led to consistently poor performance as a project manager early in my career:
When I was a project team member I relished the thought of one day having a business card with an impressive title of project manager. My thought being once I received that lofty title, it would allow me to be successful at whatever project I was assigned to lead. In addition, the acquisition of that title would instantly garner respect from other project managers.
I failed to realize that most project managers are already quite proficient at leading teams and producing results. The title comes with a heavy burden of responsibility that was exponentially greater than what I had as a project team member. As a team member, I didn’t realize how much my project manager shielded me from the sometimes unpleasant realities of projects.
The satisfaction of acquiring the title of project manager can be very short-lived if you’re not adequately prepared. My goal became to perform at the level at or above what the title that project manager reflected.
2. I Talked Too Much
Perhaps I was wrongly influenced by theater or movies where great leaders are often portrayed in time of need as delivering impressive speeches that motivate people to outstanding results. I remember quite clearly some of the meetings I led as a new project manager that quite honestly should have won me an award for impersonating a project manager.
Meetings were dominated by my overconfident and ill-formed views on what was going right and wrong. In addition, I also had the false notion that I had the best approach to all of the risks and issues on the project. No surprise that this mode of interaction greatly limited the size of projects I could effectively lead. Essentially, it was a project team of one.
After a while, I started to observe that senior project managers spent a fair portion of the time in their meetings practicing active listening. In addition, they would pause, ponder the dialogue and pose simple but effective probing questions. When I started to emulate some of these practices, it resulted in better performance that created opportunities to lead larger projects. “Less is more” became a theme that allowed me to understand the true problems and work with the team to arrive at effective mitigations.
One of the most critical components of any project is the people that comprise the team members and stakeholders. As a new project manager, I tended to over-engage with stakeholders and team members by attempting to instantly resolve every issue, whether real or perceived. My logic was that if I removed any opportunity for dissatisfaction then project success would be assured.
I failed to realize this desire to completely please everyone quite often resulted in pleasing nobody. In addition, I also managed to pay insufficient attention to the key operational facets of a project: estimates, forecasts, metrics and other essentials needed to keep a project on track. Furthermore, the business case for the project gathered almost no consideration as I was busy trying to make everyone happy as a path to results.
Over time I began to adopt a more balanced approach that allowed me to spend the proper level of engagement with people, processes and the project business case. This balanced approach allowed me to have a broader span of control for factors that could adversely affect a project.
For all the things we have learned over the years as project managers, it sometimes causes me to wish for a time machine to go back and avoid all of the mistakes we made. But then, we would not have had the benefit of the sometimes-traumatic learning experiences that have made us the project managers that we are today.
Did you ever consider yourself to be the worst project manager you ever worked for? I think we all were at one point in our careers.
by Kevin Korterud
The technology found in today’s automobiles is simply amazing. Front and side traffic radar units, anti-dozing head movement detectors, driving timers that alert drivers when they should stop for a break — all good examples of accident prevention mechanisms.
Projects to some degree are like automobiles: They are on a journey to deliver passengers (the project team and stakeholders) to a pre-determined destination. However, despite the introduction of many modern project management technologies, research shows that we continue to experience project accidents. These accidents result in extensive and costly rework to get a project back on track.
I think part of the solution to avoid these potential problems is to borrow from recent automobile technologies as a way to detect troublesome signals. These signals are not readily perceivable from traditional project management methods.
Here are a few examples of anticipatory signals that portend the onset of a skid that often leads to a project accident.
A core competency of a project manager is to determine the schedule, budget and progress trajectory of a project. The project forecast is essential to determine where the project will finish for these measurements. Schedule, budget and progress forecasts from team members that exhibit great degrees of change over prior reporting periods are indicative of trending to an accident. This downward spiral is exacerbated when the forecast measurements come with great uncertainty; e.g., “I don’t know what this will take to finish.”
Several techniques can be employed to reduce the volatility of forecasting. Some of these techniques include initiating a peer review of the forecast with another project manager or supplier subject matter expert, as well as pausing the project to recalibrate the forecast in a dedicated working session. Taking time to implement these and other techniques to mitigate forecast volatility will get the project back on track before an accident.
2. Static Project Status
Project status reports can offer a tremendous amount of value to a project manager. They accumulate both qualitative and quantitative data that sheds light on the current project state. But, despite the visibility status reports provide, they’re just a snapshot. That limits their ability to show progress trends. In addition, a project status report that does not show content changes week over week indicates that the project is likely stalled and headed toward an accident.
To increase the anticipatory value of a project status report, introduce trending and predictive data for risks, issues, deliverables and milestones. This allows the project team to determine what level of progress has been achieved, as well as what progress to expect. It also better positions the project manager to escalate mitigations to avoid an impending project accident.
At the beginning of a project, stakeholder engagement and enthusiasm is typically high. This is not unlike the start of a road trip. But, as time passes on a project, the level of enthusiasm and engagement can begin to wane. Stakeholder engagement over time will face tough tests from project risks to resource challenges to dependency conflicts. Each can sap the energy levels of stakeholders. This leads to passive engagement at best and complete disengagement and absenteeism at worst.
To keep stakeholder engagement at the proper level, stakeholders need to be treated like any other resource on a project. Their time needs to be managed in work plans to avoid oversubscribing their capacity. In addition, their work should be focused on higher value activities that promote project progress. Providing the team access to project support staff to maximize productivity also helps further stakeholder engagement and leads to persistent engagement.
Perhaps one day in the future there will be technology solutions that provide anticipatory signals for projects headed for an accident. Until that day comes, however, project managers still need to think organically and look for hidden signals of dangers to project budgets, schedules and progress.
What do you see as the leading indicators that a project is trending toward disaster?