by Emily Luijbregts
I often take on the role of escalation manager. I’m brought into projects when things are going wrong. It’s my goal to bring the project back on track and repair the working relationship with the teams and the end-customers to ensure we can have a lasting, productive partnership.
Rebuilding a poor relationship with your clients takes time, effort and sincerity. You need to be able to convince those involved that you’re the right person for the job—that you can be the change they need to see on the project. You also need to be clear with your own management about whether it’s worth the time and effort required.
The first thing I do when I come onto projects is talk to the key members of the team and the customer so I’m aware of the conflicts, issues and expectations. This step is the most important—you have to look at the current situation before you start investigating the history
Next, it’s time to look at the wider impact. What’s happening in the organization? Where did the issues arise from? This is where demanding honesty from all parties comes in because you need to understand the environment in which the project has been operating and look at the influences that have affected the project up to this point.
Here are a few common reasons why relationships get derailed, based on some of my experiences:
Poor expectation management
Was a Ferrari promised to your client and you’ve delivered a bicycle? Were the deliverables clear and understood by the customer? A lack of alignment is one of the easiest ways projects can be derailed—and cause a lot of frustration between end customers and the project team.
Sometimes it’s the wrong people are on the project. Either they’re not suited to the team or they don’t have the skills to perform the necessary tasks. As an escalation manager, you must have the authority to work with human resource managers to change or bring in different people to achieve project goals. If you don’t have this support or authority, then you need to have the sponsor’s support to train people. You also need to make sponsors aware of the additional time and money required and the impact on the project schedule and budget.
Core issues with the project itself
This comes down to how the project was started. Is the foundation of the project solid? Or are the aims of the project unclear/no longer relevant? Based on your findings, it may be that you need to have a difficult conversation with the sponsor/key stakeholders to stop a project that no longer fulfils the end goals or will be unable to achieve the objectives.
Once I fully understand what’s going on, I lay out the next steps, the timeframe of when things will happen, what they can expect/not expect and what I’m expecting from them. As escalation manager, I’m completely honest—about the issues we’re facing, about my role. what I’m able to achieve (and not able to achieve). And, more importantly, I demand everyone else is honest—some of the biggest issues that I’ve seen on troubled projects come from little white lies.
From there, I follow these steps:
Plan realistically. Make sure whatever you’re doing moving forward, you have a realistic plan—and that it was created with everyone’s full support and buy-in of tasks. This can take some time but it ensures everyone is aware of what needs to be done and on what timeline as well as the critical path/dependencies that exist between tasks/work packages/teams.
In this step, I also look at the working conditions of the teams and what’s needed for the project to be a success. In previous projects, I’ve take actions like these to ensure planning remained on track and realistic:
Build a stronger working relationship. In the projects I’ve supported, I try to have a catch-up/alignment session every month to ensure stakeholders are happy and understand where we currently are in the progress of the project. These check-ins allow me to read how the customer is doing or if there are further concerns that need to be addressed. As I build these stronger relationships, I make sure I reiterate what each member of the team can expect from me and also what’s realistic/feasible.
Deliver on what you promised. This is the outcome of your hard work! You’re delivering what was expected and communicating effectively so everyone signs off on the deliverables and the current status. It’s at this point in time that I hand over the project or it’s closed.
Every project and every relationship is different, but I’ve found communication and honesty are the core components to rebuilding a partnership with your teams and end customers.
What are your top tips for rebuilding a frayed relationship with a customer? What would you do differently? Let’s share knowledge in the comments below!
By Cyndee Miller
Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. But even I was a bit surprised at his eloquence in speaking about managing projects—and what it takes to deliver them.
And those skills are coming in handy in these strange times.
Noah said he felt “inspired” by the opportunity to rethink how he does everything.
“It’s not often you get an opportunity to completely revamp what you do,” he said. “We cannot ignore the situation we’re in. It would be a disservice to not emerge from this without thinking about better ways of working—of living.”
That means abandoning your comfort zone. His approach? “I wake up every day saying this could be the day I get fired,” Noah said. “It makes me appreciate the fact that I’m not. It also makes me ask what else would I be doing?”
There are no rules, Noah said. And that opens up new opportunities for people to reinvent ways of working, to rewrite the rules and to reemerge better than before.
“For any project manager who’s out there thinking about the moment, try to apply yourself to thinking about how you would like an ideal system to be, as opposed to trying to apply an old system to this new world,” he said.
And yes, that includes one of the greatest questions of our Zoom-filled times: Do you really need that meeting? Or can you handle it over a text?
“We are in a situation where we can challenge conventional thinking,” PMI President and CEO Sunil Prashara said in talking with Noah. “Be realistic and optimistic at the same time. That allows you to innovate.”
Note: This optimism isn’t the kind of unchecked, unicorn-and-kittens, pie-in-the-sky optimism. Meaningful innovation only happens when it’s based in reality. And right now that reality is intrinsically linked to COVID, which is serving as a catalyst for iteration and the exploration of new systems. The little virus is the ultimate gamechanger. “There’s nothing like a crisis to ignite innovation,” said Shobhna Raghupathy, PMP.
That means ditching those old prescriptive ways of thinking and activating a new set of power skills. Adaptability, communication and collaboration are the must-haves in the age of disruption, said Erick Means of CDW.
And forget failing fast. You’re still failing, said PMI’s Scott Ambler. Project leaders should instead aim to fail less often, learn faster and succeed earlier.
Much of innovation is tied to tech, of course, and project leaders mustn’t ignore the sometimes-sticky ethical issues that will inevitably bubble up.
“Every conversation about technologies should consider, ‘Okay, what are the ethical implications? What are the unintended consequences?,’” said Rana el Kaliouby, author and CEO of healthcare Affectiva, an MIT Media Lab spin-off focused on “bringing emotional intelligence to the digital world.”
The effects aren’t always what they would appear on the surface.
“My biggest concern is not that robots are going to take over—it’s that we’re accidentally building in bias in unintended ways,” said el Kaliouby. The best way to combat that? Build diverse teams of people with different POVs and perspectives.
Mark your calendars for the next Experience PMI event on 9 September, when Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and Lakshyashala Edutech’s Tanya Elizabeth Ken will lead the conversation on entrepreneurship and resilience. I’ll see you there—virtually, of course.
I’ll close out the same way PMI started each session throughout the day, with a simple question: What’s the one word you’d use to describe the work you’re doing today? Tell me in the comments below.
By Cyndee Miller
Project leaders are no strangers to change. But between a massive shift to remote work and a global recession looming, many wonder what it all means for their careers.
These are unprecedented times, no doubt—but previous downturns can help point to a path forward, explains PM Network® columnist Lindsay Scott on a recent episode of Projectified™. She predicts an “extremely competitive” job market, “just as it was back then in 2008 to ’11,” following the economic meltdown known as the Great Recession.
That makes networking a must, Scott says, even if it has to be adjusted to the realities of today. With happy hour mixers and conferences IRL likely not happening anytime soon, she offers up a nice hack for virtual events in a recent PM Network® digital exclusive: “Open the chat functionality on the video conferencing software to join real-time conversations during presentations. If you like what you’re reading from others, hop onto conference messaging to let them know and make more formal introductions.” The same goes for speakers: Reach out with a thank you, noting what you enjoyed most about their presentation. “It’s an easy way to warm up the introduction you’ll make later via email or LinkedIn,” Scott says.
Here’s where I add a blatant plug for PMI’s Virtual Experience Series and point you to my post about the last event—and remind you there’s another one on 25 August on the theme of The Community: Together We Rise.
Beyond virtual networking, now’s the time to take advantage of any extra pockets of downtime to sharpen skills. During the last downturn, Scott said, many project leaders neglected their professional development and were unpleasantly surprised by the underwhelming response they got from HR. So whether it’s checking out free learning resources from PMI or devoting an hour each day to keeping up with trends or prepping for a certification exam, putting in some work now can give you a real career edge.
“When it comes to a crowded marketplace with lots of people suddenly looking for work … you want to find some way that you’re going to be able to stand out,” Scott says on Projectified™.
And it’s not just about technical chops. The COVID-19 crisis is bringing communication to the fore, she says. It’s always been “a massive part of project management,” but with so many people managing dispersed virtual teams, there are new areas to learn about: “How do we keep people motivated and engaged? How do I make sure that their well-being’s all right? How do I make sure that they’re on track with their deliverables and they’re checking in and all that kind of stuff?”
Given the current climate, perhaps the most valuable skill of all will simply be the ability to embrace unrelenting change. “I believe black swan incidents, like Brexit or COVID-19, might become a new normal phenomenon in the future,” says Stephen Xu, PhD, PMP, head of the project management office for business unit infrastructure at Alibaba Group, Hangzhou, China. “That will make strategic agility even more important,” the PMI Future 50 leader told PM Network®.
For project leaders with the right skills and the right mindset, career prospects remain bright. “Organizations are still hiring,” Scott told Projectified™. “It’s about understanding what those organizations are and what their particular opportunities are.”
How are you making adjustments to your career development during the COVID-19 crisis? Share in the comments below.
By Peter Tarhanidis, PhD, MBA
The COVID-19 pandemic, political and racial division, unemployment and other serious issues are casting enormous shadows across the globe.
On top of these stressors, many of us have isolated ourselves from each other in order to lessen the spread of the virus and combat the pandemic. As such, we’ve adopted new behaviors and virtual ways of working to rightfully ensure our health and safety. And yet, these same efforts to maintain connectivity with each other have created more virtual isolation for many of us.
Especially for those working in isolation, it is critical to stay connected. While tacit interactions drive human behavior and develop relationships, what can leaders do to re-create and sustain team members’ engagement?
Below is a list of ten action items that can help project leaders improve working relationships and performance during these tough times:
What actions would you add to this list to benefit our community and colleagues?
Demanding Stakeholders Are Good Stakeholders
By Kevin Korterud
Managing the dynamics of stakeholder engagement is an essential component of successful delivery. Stakeholders offer direction and support, and enable key strategic and tactical decisions needed for delivery progress.
Especially early in our careers, we tend to think about stakeholders as being two-dimensional entities that have an equal say in delivery directions. For those of us who have completed several project, program or product delivery initiatives, we know this equally representative model of stakeholders does not practically exist.
At one time or another, we’ve all had a demanding stakeholder. True demanding stakeholders tend to be standouts from the traditional body of stakeholders in several dimensions.
Demanding stakeholders are almost always well-intended. They seek a path to delivery results and are not focused on gaining political capital for their own personal benefit. However, their dominating professional presence, business/technology domain knowledge and sense of urgency can be intimidating.
Project, program and product managers early in their careers often make mistakes in working with demanding stakeholders. Many of us tend to misinterpret their high level of needs as a liability. In fact, the opposite is usually true with demanding stakeholders. With a proper connection, they tend to be one of the most valuable assets for effective project, program and product delivery.
Below are three techniques for re-thinking the way you interact with demanding stakeholders:
1. Recognize their unique strengths and skills.
There is no mistaking what a demanding stakeholder needs from a project, program or product delivery initiative for success. In addition, their needs are made very clear as to what success looks like from the delivery team.
Demanding stakeholders typically possess strong business and/or technical knowledge, which gives them a highly capable foundation from which to quickly enact the best possible slate of improvements. They understand these processes end-to-end and typically have an external view of how other companies execute the processes.
Demanding stakeholders are also often efficient communicators who can phrase their needs in the minimum amount of words. In addition, they can readily visualize and demonstrate to others the required elements and outcomes from prospective improvements.
Leveraging these skills, demanding stakeholders can readily align their improvement ideas with organizational strategy. This alignment is key to realizing the maximum amount of value from a project, program or product solution.
By doing so, the demanding stakeholder—by having the best interest at heart for real results—is a key factor in true delivery success.
2. Practice setting boundaries, and use “not now/yet” vs. “no.”
The size and scale of a demanding stakeholder’s needs may at first seem daunting. In addition, there often doesn’t seem to be enough time to meet their needs. The demanding stakeholder realizes that there is typically a limited opportunity to enact high-value change, so they try to maximize what can be done—even if it means running over schedule and budget.
When interacting with demanding stakeholders, start by setting the boundaries for the size, scale and duration of improvements that are possible. Mutually agree that these boundaries are solid and can only be revised with a change control process. By setting these boundaries, you can enable the next step in optimizing demanding stakeholder needs.
Saying “no” is not an effective path for progress. The approach should be to set a grouping, ranking or other priority-based construct that can be used to determine the relative order of stakeholder needs. By using more of a “not now/yet” approach, you create clarity into the relative importance of needs, while building the bridge for future enhancements.
3. Become a demanding stakeholder yourself.
One of the most effective approaches for working with demanding stakeholders is to become one yourself. For a project, program or product manager, this is quite straightforward due to the disciplines already inherent in the work that we do on a daily basis.
To increase business or technical knowledge, put yourself in the role of a demanding stakeholder. Seek opportunities for business or technology immersion through training, shadowing the stakeholder’s subordinates and visits to company sites or customers to fully appreciate their position.
With any stakeholder engagement, such as a working or status meeting, devote additional time and effort to preparations. Role play and predict the likely set of questions or directions that would be provided by the demanding stakeholder. Leverage your team members to assist with demanding stakeholder dialog.
Demonstrate the ability to make fact-based and data-driven decisions in a quick and decisive manner. In addition, clearly communicate acceptance criteria, timing and desired outcomes to team members. Pay strict, unwavering attention to the scope, scale and time boundaries. Finally, fully support the demanding stakeholder with any change control effort needed to revise scope, scale and duration boundaries.
By exhibiting the core behaviors of a demanding stakeholder, you will gain the respect of that stakeholder and let them know they have a willing and capable partner in creating value for the company.
What are some ways you’ve successfully collaborated with demanding stakeholders?