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.
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 Ramiro Rodrigues
Is risk management just an exercise in paranoia?
That’s the question I’m often asked. I like to respond by saying there are both negative and positive risks.
A risk is a situation in which it cannot be certain whether a specific result will happen. That potential cannot be discounted. Thus, any risk hypothesis—whether for small or large risks—is subject to some sort of management strategy. While we often think of negative risks, positive risks present opportunities for organizational or project gains.
Risk management strategies can be applied to our daily lives. Take, for example, my own experience.
A few years ago, I was invited to hold a workshop on project management best practices for a service company. Concerned about the event, I decided to invite a colleague whom I trust to share the work (strategy: share) and increase the chances of the workshop being successful (strategy: improve). When checking his schedule, my colleague realized that he would be returning from a trip at 6 a.m. on the day of the workshop, which was scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Even knowing that flight delays are more common than we would like, we decided to take the risk (strategy: accept).
In the weeks leading up to the event the preparation flowed well. We met with the client and tested the presentation dozens of times (strategy: explore), but the possible flight delay did not leave my mind. For this reason, I studied not only my part of the presentation, but also that of my colleague (strategy: eliminate).
When the day arrived, I woke at 6 a.m. to find two messages from my colleague on my phone. The first one said, "I've landed?” This gave me a sigh of relief. The second said, "I'm really ill. I'm going to a hospital.” I called my colleague and verified the illness.
What a great irony! All my fears arising from my colleague's risk of a delayed flight were realized, but not because of that event.
Some changes were necessary. First, I had to substitute the car journey with a taxi (strategy: transfer). Second, I had to remove specific parts from the presentation to reduce the impact of my colleague’s absence (strategy: mitigate). Even without doing so through a documented plan, I had used all of the recognized risk response strategies.
For me, it became clear that the great gain from risk management is in the exercise of thinking beforehand and being able to choose the best options available.
The outcome of the workshop? I imagine it would have been better if my colleague had been able to attend. But judging from the applause and words of praise, I believe that it was a success.
Find Purpose to Unlock Exceptional Performance
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Find Purpose to Unlock Exceptional Performance
By Peter Tarhanidis, MBA, PhD
There are three common maturity levels in developing project management leadership:
It takes many years to cultivate the skills necessary to execute complex initiatives of all sizes and types. And project leaders may find gratification in the personal development to sustain their performance, as well as their project achievements.
However, over time, it’s not unusual to lose sight of that passion, excitement and engagement for executing initiatives. Instead, the project leader may default to simply providing the project management administrative activities of project execution. This reversal of development is a leadership pitfall and creates a chasm between high performance and exceptional performance.
One way to bridge the chasm is to be purpose-driven. A defined purpose distinguishes oneself as a distinctive as a brand. A brand is underpinned by one’s education, abilities and accomplishments. By identifying what is central to your interests and commitments, project leaders can re-engage with purpose and unlock exceptional performance. This can be broad or can be very specific in a subject expertise.
I have use the following method to find my brand and define my purpose:
Having used this approach to define my purpose, I learned I enjoy the macro view of the firm. I regularly coach leaders and help them develop their teams. Therefore, I like to simultaneously drive toward exceptional performance to achieve a firm’s mission and to advance the needs of society.
Please share your purpose and any examples of exceptional performance you achieved toward that purpose.
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.