Project Management

Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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Cameron McGaughy
Lynda Bourne
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Christian Bisson
Yasmina Khelifi
Sree Rao
Soma Bhattacharya
Emily Luijbregts
Lenka Pincot
cyndee miller
Jorge Martin Valdes Garciatorres
Marat Oyvetsky
Ramiro Rodrigues
Wanda Curlee

Past Contributors:

Rex Holmlin
Vivek Prakash
Dan Goldfischer
Linda Agyapong
Jim De Piante
Siti Hajar Abdul Hamid
Bernadine Douglas
Michael Hatfield
Deanna Landers
Kelley Hunsberger
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Alfonso Bucero Torres
Marian Haus
Shobhna Raghupathy
Peter Taylor
Joanna Newman
Saira Karim
Jess Tayel
Lung-Hung Chou
Rebecca Braglio
Roberto Toledo
Geoff Mattie

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Viewing Posts by Saira Karim

Harnessing the Law of Reciprocity

Categories: Stakeholder, Communication

I have become an ardent advocate for "the law of reciprocity" -- the principle that when you do a favor for someone, he or she will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return. And I believe it should be consciously practiced within the work culture. 

Reciprocating to a goodwill gesture is one of the universal rules of good manners. It is a principle that comes naturally to many of us despite our culture. Organizations and businesses are now capitalizing on this principle to build relationships internally with their employees and externally with clients and customers. Reciprocity exists in many different ways, such as: 

  • Information or good advice that is of value to the receiver 
  • Help or a kind gesture 
  • Recognizing and appreciating a person's contribution
  • Remembering events that are of importance to others
  • Rewards, celebrating personal or group achievements and successes
  • Sharing job opportunities or networking leads
  • Creating convenient services for employees, such as complimentary or subsidized meals for workers or on-site child care 
  • Free services for clients and customers
  • Thank-you messages
  • Public acknowledgment or mentions of good work 

So how can a culture of reciprocity help projects and those who work on them? 

Employee psychology surveys and studies have found a positive relationship between supportive organizations and employee commitment to the organization. These employees often also showed willingness to help the organization reach its goals. What's significant from these findings is that as reciprocity as a whole increased, so did employee obligation.  

Commitment and obligation to pursue project goals is ideal for project managers and project-orientated organizations. Therefore, creating a reciprocating project environment can only deepen individual and team commitment and ownership of tasks and concern for the project. It can also help increase individual satisfaction and team motivation as individuals feel supported, valued and connected. 

Project leaders can utilize the law of reciprocity by engaging and encouraging feedback from team members, and then using the information to create well-defined and simple processes or provide the means to make their work efficient. By removing unnecessary obstacles and demonstrating an active interest in wanting to help, leaders send a clear message to the team that its time and views are respected and valued. In return, team members may feel more obliged to reciprocate these efforts and show willingness to support the project and the manager during difficult circumstances. 

Reciprocity with project sponsors and executives can pay dividends for a project manager as well. A sponsor may become more willing to support the project manager in pivotal matters, such as acquiring resources and approval processes. And being in a reciprocal relationship allows project staff to say no to requests without angering or offending stakeholders -- with good relationships, there is more understanding and forgiveness for when things go wrong. 

Beyond project teams and stakeholders, reciprocity should be exercised with clients, customers and vendors. This is good for projects as it helps develop robust, long-term relationships rather than one-time engagements. And these relationships are especially useful when negotiating for resources, contracts, deadlines and finance-related matters.

But beware of how you approach reciprocity. It should be informal and without expectation of return in a specific situation or by a specific date -- otherwise it becomes a bribe, something negative and undesirable. Reciprocation should be carried out with sincerity, generosity and integrity. 

Can you think of a time when you used reciprocation to help with project work?
Posted by Saira Karim on: January 03, 2014 05:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Join the Evolution

Categories: Leadership

Thousands of books, quotes, advice and research have covered the topic of leadership. In contrast, there is far less dedicated knowledge on project leadership. And yet, as mentioned in the opening remarks at PMI® Global Congress 2013 -- EMEA and in a recent Voices roundtable on talent management, project leadership is fast emerging as a critical skill for project practitioners. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the region where I live and work, is booming with projects, particularly in construction, oil and gas. In the region, project managers have been recruited traditionally for their technical and engineering expertise. However, due to regional growth, the dynamics of the project work force are changing, and so are expectations of project managers. It is now common for a typical core project team to be made up of members aged 30 to 60, with a mix of locals and expatriates from at least five different nationalities, all working together in one location. This environment of change and uncertainty requires project professionals to become more responsive, adaptive, people-centric and emotionally intelligent.

For these reasons, I presented a lecture on this subject at a recent PMI Arabian Gulf Chapter meeting. From the discussion that evening, there seemed to be concerns about the role of a project leader versus the one for a traditional project manager.

The main points of concern that I clarified that night were: 

  • Project leadership has nothing to do with seniority, title or position in the hierarchy of an organization
  • Project leadership is more than management 
  • Project leadership is not easy 
Getting into specifics, I proposed these ways in which a project manager differs from a project leader:

  1. A project manager creates objectives; the project leader influences people and events to ensure those are met
  2. A project manager formulates plans; the project leader provides the vision and enthusiasm to achieve them
  3. A project manager monitors results; the project leader recognizes and initiates change to keep the project on track
  4. A project manager assigns activities; the project leader provides direction and motivation
  5. A project manager solves technical problems; the project leader encourages innovation
  6. A project manager puts the team together; the project leader fosters collaboration
  7. A project manager asks for feedback and information; the project leader explains how to make the information useful
  8. A project manager identifies stakeholders; the project leader analyzes and balances their expectations
Although not everyone agreed with me, I insisted that project leaders are made from experience, so building leadership skills is something every project professional can do to work through the changing business environment. To that end, leadership skills and experience can be gained by:

  • Observing the methods and skills of other good leaders 
  • Putting yourself into a challenging situation that requires you to adapt 
  • Accepting more responsibilities
  • Taking calculated risks and learning from mistakes

Finally, to help you establish a project leadership mindset, regularly ask yourself:

  1. What is working well and what isn't? 
  2. How can I run this project/task more successfully? 
  3. How can I help our client get more benefit and save money in the process? 
  4. How can I improve customer satisfaction and team motivation?  
  5.  What concerns the stakeholders most about the project right now? 
  6. If I asked team members to join me on another project, which of them would, and why? Which would not, and why? 
  7. Which parts of my project's infrastructure might I be overlooking right now? 
  8. What knowledge/skills should I gain to support me through my leadership experiences?
How can a project manager evolve to encompass a project leadership role? 
Posted by Saira Karim on: August 20, 2013 02:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bracing for Change

Categories: Change Management

A colleague recently started leading a department responsible for maintenance projects for a manufacturing organization. The project manager wanted to implement changes such as rolling out new project software, increasing administrative transparency, and revising team and stakeholder communication methods.
Naturally, he was concerned about how these changes would be received. My advice: 

Communicate with everyone affected as a result of the disruption. Host meetings to explain the factors behind the need for change, such as out-dated processes, unsatisfactory performance, expansion plans or executive directives. The reasons should be transparent, easy to understand and supported by relevant facts. Follow up with details on employee and organizational benefits to the changes. Above all, the vision for change should be realistic and believable. 

Plan for time to collect and acknowledge reactions to the proposed changes. Expect both positive and negative reactions, and be prepared to hear and answer questions. In this specific case, concerns included: fear of increased work hours or workload, uncertainty over the size and management of the disruption, nervousness toward new systems and job security.

Create avenues where people can freely voice these concerns -- publicly via workshops and meetings, and anonymously via surveys. This helps the project manager understand the sources of any resistance and support.

Recognize adjustments. In the case of my colleague, the majority of individuals in his department had been with the organization for over 15 years. That means they probably formed the present systems and culture, and therefore it was expected that this group would be more skeptical toward change. In this sort of situation, describe how and what type of training and support can or will be provided. Identify who will be responsible for managing the change and how the process will take shape (i.e., the immediate first steps).

Manage emotional and psychological stress by being supportive of and empathetic to team members as they adapt. Plan for active team and stakeholder involvement -- for example, brainstorming meetings. It may be necessary to plan for some of the team to visit another organization or department that has recently undergone similar changes. Visibly involve executives and other departments, such as human resources, for rewards and incentives to encourage the adoption of change.

Plan for and implement changes using project management techniques, such as risk assessments, stakeholder analysis and progress measurements. Prepare for frequent reporting of successes and setbacks so everyone knows how the change is progressing and what achievements or adjustments have been made.
Enforce the change. Look for quick wins and be prepared for some to slip into the old way of doing things -- and perhaps sabotage or reverse the change. Check that everyone is adhering to the new plan. In the event of strong resistance, it may be necessary to respond decisively with disciplinary action. While it is important to be open and inclusive, there should also be a clear understanding that change is not optional.

Wrap up like a project. Once the changes are complete, close, celebrate and reward the team. Don't forget to list lessons learned.

What advice would you add? How have you helped a project team adopt change?

For a closer look at change management -- including case studies -- read PM Network's "In Times of Change," June 2012.
Posted by Saira Karim on: April 12, 2013 04:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Basics: The 4 Phases of Negotiation

Categories: Communication

Obvious but true: Project professionals must know how to negotiate. Whether they're dealing with customers, suppliers, contractors, colleagues or other departments, negotiating skills are crucial in pushing ideas through, securing finances or resources, and agreeing to contract terms. 

William Ury, co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, stresses that successful negotiations must generate efficiency, reach wise settlements and maintain good, or enhance, relationships between the negotiating parties.

There are four phases to the negotiation process. The first is preparation, when you acquire all the documentation, facts, data and information necessary to bring others into agreement. For example, when negotiating contract details with external contractors, a project manager must gather the number of project phases, breakdown of deliverables, milestones, time scales, resource requirements and expectations.

During preparation, it helps to look for win-win agreements that focus on shared interests. This opens the door to finding solutions and options that favor all parties. 

In case an agreement is not reached, you should also prepare a fall-back position before entering into bargaining. For example, when preparing for negotiation for a vital resource from another department, a good fall-back plan would include details on the following: 

  • A "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," such as outsourcing that activity or employing externally for that role. 
  • A "worst alternative to a negotiated agreement," which may include canceling or delaying an activity. 
  • A "walk away point or price." This is the point at which parties agree to step away from the issue to regroup later to consider the options — or end the negotiations because options are unacceptable. 
  • A "zone of possible agreement," where interests overlap with the other negotiating parties. For example, that could be an agreement to have the resource part-time, do a resource swap or take some responsibilities from the department.

The second stage is to exchange information and disclose necessary details with the other party. This aids efficiency and reduces frustration by ensuring relevant information is available to all and appropriate considerations are made prior to meeting. On a project, this information may include cultural or environmental considerations, company standards, rules and policies.

Bargaining is the third phase. It is at this stage that most of the interaction between parties takes place, and individuals display a range of different negotiation styles and tactics to make their case. It is during bargaining that the risk of unsuccessful or troublesome negotiations is highest, with increased potential for tempers and frustrations to flare.

To bargain successfully, focus on common interests and objectives at the start to clear any assumptions. 

You should also acknowledge your own triggers — the things others can say or do that make you react in a hostile or arrogant manner. If faced with a trigger, pause, ask questions so others can explain their point; listen, and then respond objectively and professionally.

It helps to bargain with the mindset that everyone is a problem solver, not an adversary. This paves the way for more questions, encouraging everyone to listen and collectively look for ways to agree. 

The final phase of negotiation is closure. Like in a project life cycle, this phase formally seals and binds the parties into the outcomes of the agreement.

What negotiation advice or practices do you recommend on a project?
Posted by Saira Karim on: February 13, 2013 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Denial in the Project Environment

In the children's story, The Emperor's New Clothes, a vain emperor hires two people who promise to make him a new suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position.

The emperor cannot see the clothing himself, but pretends he can so as not to appear unfit for his position. Instead of questioning or pointing out the truth, his subordinates do the same, choosing to consciously deny a truth, praising and congratulating the emperor.

In this story, the emperor's men displayed a common behavior -- denial -- that stems from the human need to protect oneself. I believe that this behavior exists in today's project environments, too.

Often in project environments, for example, there is frustration over meetings and discussions that fail to address or acknowledge the proverbial "elephant in the room."

These are the unproductive meetings that review irrelevancies, repetitive issues and problems, but never the actual root cause. Participants stay silent and indirectly endorse the status quo, but then proceed to gather in "safe" groups to discuss real problems and sentiments away from the ears of managers and leaders.

Failing to challenge, speak up or change a situation are all behaviors stemming from denial. Project professionals may choose to deny something out of fear of consequence or feeling embarrassed if deemed wrong. Sometimes it's out of self-preservation because it's easier to be a "yes" person than to challenge the status quo.

Behaviors stemming from denial can also result from over-optimism -- especially when it comes to risk identification. Overly optimistic people tend to deny anything is wrong or can go wrong. Denial can also cause negative consequences for individuals, teams and projects. If left unchecked, denial can become part of an organization's culture.

Project leaders must recognize and reform denial behaviors. Doing so can uncover deficiencies, eliminate blind spots and help an organization become more efficient and competitive. By removing the root causes for denial, individuals will align their interests and act in favor of the team, project and organization.

In my opinion, the best way to do this on your project team is to lead by example.

Set standards by being decisive in day-to-day management. Implement and insist on good, documented work processes. Listen and understand colleagues, and work with the differences and opinions. Individuals on the project team should know what is expected of them and be made to feel valued, secure and included.

Tell the truth about a situation, even if it is bad news. This encourages others reporting to you to do the same. Create a culture that encourages and rewards team members to flag issues and ask questions because problems that are visible stand a better chance of getting resolved.

Do you agree that denial behavior can be a problem in the project environment? How do you root out the negative effects of denial behavior?
Posted by Saira Karim on: November 28, 2012 10:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

"If they have moving sidewalks in the future, when you get on them, I think you should have to assume sort of a walking shape so as not to frighten the dogs."

- Jack Handey