Viewing Posts by David Wakeman
by Dave Wakeman
I was scrolling ProjectManagement.com recently, looking for inspiration and ideas for this month’s piece when I saw one author pose a question about “business context” and another one post about “business acumen.”
These got my attention, because over the years, my entire collection of posts has been about reinforcing these two points:
So this month, I want to reinforce the importance of your business skills to be a better project manager by highlighting two key ideas.
1. The best project manager can’t fix the wrong project. Peter Drucker said something about the worst waste of timing being doing something that need not be done at all.
One of the key ways that you can use your business skills to improve your PM performance is by understanding what projects are really going to push your business toward its key strategic goals.
This speaks directly to context. You get there with your business acumen.
Why does this matter? First, a lot of projects end up taking place due to momentum. A project starts gaining steam, no one steps in to ask if it is “essential.” It just seems important. So, it gets done.
Second, a lot of projects are done because that’s the way similar projects have been handled in the past. So, a project is just done because it is consistent with “best practices” even if there have been no lessons learned to update the process.
These scenarios highlight the importance of context and business acumen for PMs, because being able to step in and understand if a project is essential and impactful can stop the wrong projects from taking place.
2. Context is key in any situation. The best project manager in the world is still operating in a situation filled with context, no matter what.
The idea of any project, business or PM operating in a vacuum is funny, because nothing occurs in a vacuum. Great PMs know that context matters in every situation, and that context is fluid.
Andy Jordan recently wrote about there being “multiple” contexts, and that is right to a point, but it can be confusing to people. A good PM’s frame of reference for “context” in their projects revolves around the answer to the question of, “What does success look like?”
Why does this matter? One, we need to isolate the signal from the noise. I agree with Andy that there are multiple contexts for any project decision. Where I want you to focus your attention is on recognizing which one is most important.
In the modern business environment, you are never going to be able to manage all the contexts, so the process of isolation and focus matter more than ever.
So, look for the thing that is going to help you achieve “success,” whatever that means in your situation.
Two, the proper context should help you justify your project’s execution. Above, we discussed business acumen and the “right project.” Here is where context helps that come true because the context can change—and likely will change.
So, it is your job to make sure you know what success looks like so that you can place the project in the proper context to ensure that the right projects move forward.
Remember, the best project manager in the world can’t save the wrong project—and that’s where the meeting of business acumen and business context come together.
What do you think? Am I off the mark?
by Dave Wakeman, PMP
On a recent visit to Reddit, I noticed a trend from some project managers—who were asking questions about how you can tell if your company is doing project management all wrong.
That got me thinking about some signs that an organization doesn’t have a healthy PM culture—and three big ones came to mind. Do you experience any of these where you work?
1. No idea why the role of project manager is key to a project’s success: I believe we’ve all been there—we see someone assigned as the project lead due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why do I say that? Because just throwing out the PM assignment is never a case of being in the right place at the right time.
This is truly the biggest warning sign that an organization isn’t project manager ready—they just have no definition of why the role of PM is so important to a project’s success.
Instead of having a clear expectation of the PM’s role with a defined process in place to help with achieving specific goals (including communication expectations, a definition of success, and an understanding of how the project ties into the organization’s strategy), the organization basically sticks its hand into a paper bag with pieces of paper, drawing one name out. (Or worse.)
2. No clear definition of success: This one seems to take hold in a lot of organizations, and it is usually coupled with the impression that “I’ll know it when I see it.”
This kind of attitude almost guarantees failure. There are exceptions where a project comes together well without this definition in place—but that is very rare.
Why? Because without an understanding of what success looks like, any direction is a good direction.
This can be frustrating for all stakeholders, because when pressed for objectives or measures, a lot of time the feedback comes back as fluffy terms that aren’t related to the project’s success like “man hours,” “activities” or something else.
Bad project organizations judge success by “feel.” Good project organizations judge success with metrics.
That way, you can say, “We hit our target. Here is why…”; or, “We missed the mark. Here’s why, and here is what we can do to change it next time…”
3. No resource investment tied to specific projects: This is one I’ve been blindsided by in the past.
Why? Because I’ve fallen prey to the answer, “Whatever it takes!”
Trust me: “Whatever it takes!” is never actually “Whatever it takes!”
Organizations without a project culture underestimate the resources needed to make a project successful. This leads them to offer “commitments” or “promises.”
Most of the time, when a PM tries to cash in on those “promises” and “commitments,” it is impossible. The resources aren’t actually available.
This stands in contrast with an organization that is built for project management—where you have the scope, you know what success is going to look like, and you have a clear understanding of the resources that are going to be needed to hit the project’s objectives.
Does this mean that there are never changes or limits to the resources available? No. Not even close.
What this does mean is that a good project organization starts with some base level of commitment of resources, not just “commitments” and “promises.”
To me, every project requires these minimums from an organization in order to give success a chance:
I’m curious what things you have noticed that set an organization’s projects up for failure. Let us know in the comments below.
by Dave Wakeman
Uncertainty feels like the main topic in a lot of my conversations lately. With economic signals being mixed, layoffs coming rapidly and a lot of political friction happening around the world, it’s easy to understand why.
This got me thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career that have helped me deal with uncertainty. These four keys have helped me repeatedly, and maybe they can help you as well:
1. Communicate, but don’t BS: I always start here because when there is a lot of uncertainty, people are searching for information, facts and…well, certainty. Yet you often have none to give them.
The default action I see in many leaders is that they vomit out a buzzword-filled nothingburger that leaves their teams more uncertain and more fearful.
A better way to approach your communication is to be as clear as possible. By this I mean: Tell people what you know or don’t know.
If you don’t know anything, say it.
If you know there is going to be an update in a week or so, say that.
Don’t make up things to fill the time or space. In your efforts to give your team something, you may feed the uncertainty. Or worse, you may be flat out wrong.
2. Be flexible: This is a good rule for PMs in any environment. There’s usually never one straight line to success. In an uncertain environment, this is probably even more true.
Uncertainty demands flexibility because you don’t know when something is going to pop up and throw you off course. This could take the form of a change in scope. Or you might find that your project is shut down. There could be team members moved, fired or quitting.
All of these demand a certain amount of flexibility in service of your goals.
3. Simplify: A partner to flexibility is simplification. Complexity seems to be the norm in modern life, and when things are uncertain, we likely find ourselves adding complexity as a tool to help keep our minds off of the challenges we are dealing with.
A better way forward is to simplify your work, your procedures and your communications. In truth, simplify things every chance you get. There is psychological relief in knowing you are in control of the things that you can control.
Jimmy Johnson, the former coach of the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, talked about telling his partner that he could sleep like a baby the night before a game because he knew he had done everything he could to prepare for it. That’s really about simplification.
You make things as simple as they can be to make sure that you are doing everything you can do to be successful.
4. Progress, not perfection: An uncertain environment might make that little voice in the back of your head scream, “Everything has to be perfect!”
There is no such thing as perfection. You need to get your head wrapped around the need to make progress and not get lost chasing perfection. Why?
As I put this list together, I realized that these ideas hold up in any environment. But it reminded me of a saying I heard somewhere about a crisis showing us who we really are. Maybe that’s what this is all about, using the period of uncertainty to show off who you really are as a leader: focused and effective.
Let me know what you do when dealing with uncertainty in the comments section.
by Dave Wakeman
I was going through my portfolio recently and came across the original notes from the very first piece I wrote for PMI back in 2012.
I then noticed that I started writing for Voices in January 2013 after I left the world of political consulting and got my PMP. (Yay for needing credits for continuing education!)
All of that made me think about the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the last 10 years. As a way of celebrating our time together, here are the 10 most important things I’ve learned writing this monthly piece for PMI and ProjectManagement.com:
Thanks for reading my musings on Voices. This has been a cool opportunity to speak with y’all each month, and I look forward to 10 more years of lessons to come. And if you have a favorite PM lesson, leave it in the comments.
by Dave Wakeman
I don’t know soccer as well as a lot of folks because I didn’t grow up with the sport in rural Georgia during the 1980s, but that hasn’t stopped me from coaching a group of 12-year-olds.
This means that I have had to fall back on my skills as a communicator, teacher and student to help these kids learn the game, grow their skills and have fun.
What has been the most important thing? Leadership.
Let me share some lessons.
1. Direction matters: When I first started working with the other coaches, I said, “We need a philosophy, a direction.”
Thus, the “3 Ps” were born: passing, pressure and possession.
Are these the right Ps? Is this the right direction? Does it work all the time?
Maybe. Maybe. No.
What the 3 Ps have highlighted for me is the importance of having a destination and a direction so that you can rally people around where you are heading.
With the kids, we know that our core principles are those 3 Ps—and that we if we focus on them, we are likely to be successful in growing as a team.
As PMs, the same thing plays out when we lay out the idea of “what success looks like” for our team and stakeholders.
2. Communication matters: Coach Jonah says that I am the “rah-rah” coach and the “motivator.” I don’t know if I buy that.
I do know that because I can’t fall back on my soccer skills to demonstrate certain ideas or experience to teach about certain situations, I have to be more thoughtful in the way that I communicate with our team.
What does this mean?
This may sound like a lot, but it is really the embodiment of our 3 Ps.
You can use this idea as well by knowing the three or four things you need to get across for your project to be successful—and reinforce the message over and over.
A lesson that I learned in my marketing training that applies everywhere is that it takes many more times hearing a message before it sticks with your audience.
As the PM, you might get tired of the message or explaining things, but you are thinking about a certain aspect a lot more than most people—and you need to recognize that it might be only a small part of someone else’s life or job.
3. Leadership matters: Ultimately, the whole project comes down to the idea that leadership still matters.
With our kids, it isn’t that they want me, Paul or Jonah to be great soccer coaches or players. They need us to be leaders.
They look to us to provide direction, vision and instruction that will help them learn the game, improve and have fun.
In your work, your team members aren’t always looking to you for technical direction. Often, they want you to be a bridge for them to success in the project, growth in their skills, and stronger performance as a team.
It is a simple message, but sometimes you need a group of seventh graders to remind you. What do you think?