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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Viewing Posts by Sree Rao

3 Valuable PM Lessons I Learned in 2023

By Sree Rao, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP

We are almost at the end of 2023! As I take a moment to reflect on this wild ride of a year, here are three key lessons I learned that I wanted to share with you all.

1. Embrace change: Projects are like a box of chocolates…you never know which ones might get canceled.
As program managers, we are no strangers to change. Yet some types of changes are easier to deal with than others. 2023 has been a turbulent year for me with multiple project cancellations right before releasing them to production.

It was super demotivating. But as technology continues to evolve, customer needs shift and market trends change, it's essential to stay flexible and change course as strategy demands. If you ever have to deal with such a situation, rather than feeling demotivated you should embrace it as an opportunity for growth and learning. By doing so, you'll be better equipped to lead your team through the ups and downs.

One of my mentors gave this perspective, which has helped me immensely: “We get paid to do the work without promises that the features/projects will be released to production. So as long as you get paid and you are continuing to learn, do your best work and leave the rest.”


2. About pursuing your passion: Stop comparing yourself to others.
You might have heard this advice from several people: If you pursue your passion, your work will be more enjoyable. For the longest time, I have been beating myself up because I don’t have any passions (unless binge watching TV counts as a passion? :)). I personally do not find this advice to be practical, so I made peace with the realization that it is important to be content with myself rather than compare myself to others who are “pursuing their passion.”

What I realized is that we can pursue our interests in other ways and means instead of completely switching careers or trying to turn hobbies into a living. We can pursue our passions/interests in small ways like finding opportunities in the domain that we are interested in. As an example, if your hobby is photography and photo editing, perhaps you could continue being a program manager but find a job in a company that specializes in photo editing software like Adobe.

Find the domain or area that brings you joy—whether it's event management, innovation or team building—and find opportunities in that domain. When you enjoy what you do, everyone benefits—not just your own well-being, but also your program's success.


3. Attitude of gratitude: The secret ingredient to well-being, in both your professional and personal life!
Last but not least is cultivating an attitude of gratitude. Sure, there are always things that could have gone better (like projects not getting canceled), but be grateful for what we have.

As a program manager, we have the privilege of working with talented team members who contribute their skills and expertise to our projects. Rather than thinking “they are doing their job,” make it a point to express gratitude toward them regularly. A simple "thank you" or acknowledgement can go a long way in building positive relationships within your team
and fostering a supportive work environment. Additionally, practicing gratitude can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

By embracing these three lessons, you'll be better equipped to navigate the challenges of program management in 2024 and beyond. Remember, as a program manager, our role goes beyond managing projects; it's about leading people, fostering collaboration and driving impactful results.

As we bid farewell to another year, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to each and every one of you for your thoughtful comments and engagement. (A special shoutout to our editor Cameron for inspiring me to write and for shaping my musings a better way). Wishing you all a blessed 2024!

Posted by Sree Rao on: December 11, 2023 11:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

The Importance of Strategic Management for Technical Program Managers

By Sree Rao, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP

During my initial phases as a technical program manager, I was heavily focused on the execution of programs and didn’t bother much with strategy. As I gained more experience, I realized the importance of understanding strategy and how it can uplevel us as program managers.

Based on my experience, there is a common misconception that TPMs only play a role in program execution once a strategy has been determined. Strategy plays a crucial role in determining the success of any program, so in this post I will discuss why being plugged into strategy is essential for TPMs.

Strategy vs Plan: Understanding the Differences
Before diving into the importance of strategic management, it's important to understand the difference between “strategy” and “plan.” Strategic management involves the formulation and implementation of long-term plans to achieve organizational goals. Simply put, strategy is the what and why, while a plan is the how.

What is Strategic Management?
Strategic management is a vast topic—there are even master’s programs that delve into it in detail (I will not be able to do that kind of justice to it in this post). A high-level summary is that it refers to the process of defining an organization's mission, vision and overall direction, as well as making decisions on how to allocate resources to achieve those goals. It involves analyzing the internal and external environment—identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis), and developing strategies to address them.

One of the key benefits of strategic management is its ability to provide a clear roadmap for achieving project/program goals. Strategy involves conducting market research, analyzing competitive landscapes, identifying customer needs, and developing long-term plans that align with business objectives. By having a well-defined strategy in place, we can ensure that our projects are focused on delivering value to stakeholders—while also contributing toward the organization's overall success.

Product managers usually create the strategy, but TPMs play a significant part in putting it into action.

Why is Strategic Management Important for TPMs?

  1. It forces you to focus on the long term, not just the short term. I have worked with teams that did not have product managers. These teams were identifying and executing on features that would benefit in the short term, but were not necessarily thinking about the long term. This has served us well when the customer base was small, but was not sustainable when the customer base began to grow. This is where TPMs can be force multipliers—by understanding the fundamentals of strategic management, TPMs can help ensure the teams are set up for long-term success.
  2. You can track KPIs/benefits over time. As TPMs, we not only should be tracking program/project key performance indicators, but also track if we are achieving the benefits we set out to achieve with the program. This includes monitoring metrics/KPIs well after the programs have been implemented. This involves setting clear targets and KPIs, regularly monitoring progress toward these goals, and making adjustments as necessary based on the data we collect. By having a well-defined strategy in place that includes specific milestones and metrics, we can ensure that our projects are aligned with broader business objectives. This also provides us with valuable insights into how to improve performance over time.
  3. It aligns efforts with goals. As the saying goes, “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” In companies that foster a bottom-up culture, we often receive an abundance of project and feature ideas from team members. By understanding the organization's overall strategy, TPMs can help prioritize these ideas based on their alignment with the company's goals. This ensures that resources are used efficiently and avoids confusion about what to focus on.
  4. It provides a framework for decision-making. A well-defined strategy provides a framework for decision-making throughout the project/program lifecycle. This involves analyzing various options and their potential outcomes before making a decision, as well as regularly reviewing the strategy to ensure that it remains relevant in light of changing market conditions or customer needs. By taking a more deliberate approach toward decision-making, we can minimize the risk of costly mistakes while also ensuring that our projects are aligned with broader business objectives.
  5. It provides data-driven insights. As TPMs, we have access to a wealth of data about the project's progress. By providing data-driven insights into the program's performance—and how we are tracking toward achieving goals—we can help inform strategic decisions and ensure that resources are being used effectively.

Conclusion
Strategic management is a crucial aspect of any successful technical program management effort. By participating in strategy sessions and influencing decision-making throughout the program lifecycle, we can ensure that our efforts align with broader business objectives, minimize the risk of costly mistakes, and provide valuable insights for continuous improvement over time.

Disclaimer: My experience has been only in the tech industry, and I am not sure if this is prevalent in other industries. I would love to know if you have experienced something similar.

 

Posted by Sree Rao on: October 11, 2023 10:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Task Conflict vs. Relationship Conflict

 

As program managers, we have to deal with various conflicts in the workplace. The book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know by Adam Grant calls out valuable insights into distinguishing between task conflicts and relationship conflicts—and this proves useful in reaching effective resolutions.

According to Grant, task conflict refers to disagreements or differences of opinion that arise between team members regarding the tasks they are working on. On the other hand, relationship conflict refers to personal disagreements or clashes between team members that are not related to the tasks they are working on. Relationship conflict could be due to power struggles, personality conflicts or prior conflicts leading to mistrust.

Task Conflict
Task conflict is encouraged as it promotes creativity, critical thinking and innovation. Some examples of task conflicts are: differing opinions on how to design the user experience for a particular product, or the technical architecture for implementing a system.

By having diverse opinions and having team members debate various options, we get an exploration of ideas and solutions. Task conflict often stimulates healthy debate and increases team motivation, as team members feel that their input is valued. Grant states that some organizations build challenge networks (groups of thoughtful critics) into their cultures to stir up task conflict. If your team does not have task conflicts, it might be a sign of lack of trust or other underlying issues.

While task conflict is beneficial, it is important to manage it properly. As program managers, we can play a crucial role in resolving task conflict by implementing the following strategies:

  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities of program members. Use tools like RACI.
  • Encourage open communication and active listening amongst your team members.
  • Maintain focus on the task. Clearly identify the outcome that you are expecting. Team members should focus on finding the best possible solution, and it should not be about winning arguments or proving others wrong.
  • Identify points of agreement and points of contention. This will help team members gain consensus easily.
  • Use one of the three facilitating techniques (or any technique that you already have in your repertoire) mentioned in my prior blog post, ‘How to Foster Effective Group Decision Making,’ to gain consensus on points of contention.

Relationship Conflict
While task conflict can be beneficial to team dynamics, relationship conflict is detrimental. According to Grant, if task conflict is not managed properly, it can easily escalate into relationship conflict.  Relationship conflicts at work will lead to negative emotions and decreased productivity.

Occasionally, relationship conflict can manifest as task conflict. If you notice that the same individuals have recurring task conflicts even when it is not necessary, it should signal that there are some underlying relationship issues.

I have noticed this a few times with a few of my team members—and upon further investigation, I was able to find that the individuals in question had relationship conflict.

Here are a few tips for dealing with relationship conflicts:

  • Set ground rules on how team members should conduct themselves, which includes acceptable behavior and procedures for handling conflict. You can add them as part of your program charter.
  • Similar to how open communication and active listening is important for resolving task conflicts, it is important to resolve relationship conflicts as well.
  • Identify the root cause of the conflict by talking to the team members involved in the conflict in a one-on-one setting. Avoid taking sides or showing favoritism.
  • Resolving relationship conflicts requires handling people’s emotions. Sometimes this results in heated arguments and personal attacks. If you are comfortable facilitating discussions to resolve relationship conflict, go for it. I personally do not try to get into solving team member’s relationship conflicts, as these need to be handled sensitively and might require manager or HR intervention.

While it is not possible to avoid relationship conflict completely at work, you can minimize them. One way to keep relationship conflicts to a minimum is by creating professional boundaries at work and not oversharing your personal information. Getting too involved in others’ personal issues or oversharing your personal information can create unnecessary emotional investment and conflict.

I have had my share of conflicts as well—and wondered why I felt uncomfortable dealing with some conflicts versus others. This insight about task versus relationship conflict helped me figure out the reason why. 

In conclusion, I can attest to the importance of understanding the differences between task and relationship conflict. While task conflict can be constructive if managed properly, relationship conflict is often detrimental. By understanding these differences, we can better manage conflicts and create a more positive, productive environment for everyone involved.

What strategies have you found to be most effective in resolving conflicts? Leave your ideas in the comments below!

Posted by Sree Rao on: April 28, 2023 05:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

10 Key Lessons From 10 Years of Program Management

By Sree Rao, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP

From rookie mistakes to hard-won victories, my decade-plus journey as a program manager has been full of lessons. Here are the ones that stuck with me the most. As you ring in 2023, I hope these lessons will help you on your PM journey.

1. Don’t get too caught up in processes and labels. In my early career as a PM, I was stuck on implementing agile methodologies like scrum, Kanban etc. With experience, I have come to realize that it is important to figure out a process that works in the team-specific context rather than sticking to the labels of agile versus waterfall.

What is effective for one team might or might not work for another team. We get better engagement and buy-in if we involve the team in setting up processes and make the changes that the team recommends. It is important to rely on the collective wisdom of the team.

2. Don’t try to control the outcome of meetin­­gs. I place a high value on clear agendas and sticking to them in meetings. However, there have been occasions where my meetings did not go as planned. At first, this upset me, but I eventually came to understand that it is our responsibility to be prepared (and we cannot always control meeting outcomes). It is important to read the room and adapt meetings as needed.

3. Don’t overload yourself. During the early stages of my career, I was hesitant to decline additional work, even if my workload was already overwhelm­­ing. I was afraid of not meeting expectations.

However, it is important to be aware of your own limitations and feel empowered to say “no” when necessary. While we may not always have a choice, it is important to carefully consider how much work you can realistically handle. Is it better to do a good job with what you already have on your plate, or lower the quality of your work by taking on more?

Constantly being overburdened with work can prevent you from having the time and energy to identify opportunities for personal and team growth.

4. Don’t be a default meeting scheduler. There is a misconception that it is a PM’s job to schedule meetings, and as such I have often been asked to schedule meetings and take notes. However, this is not the primary focus of a PM role. To better manage my workload and prioritize, I have learned to say “no” to scheduling meetings unless I am driving the agenda or have a significant interest or stake in the meeting outcome.

While I may make exceptions in certain cases (such as when I need to expedite something), I have learned to be more selective about the meetings that I agree to schedule.

5. Identify single points of failure (SPOF) for projects and their mitigations. As a Technical Program Manager in the tech industry, I have often managed projects where only one engineer is assigned to a project. This is a big risk, as that engineer is now a SPOF for the project.

Whenever possible, it is advisable to request that at least two engineers share the workload of any deadline-sensitive, critical projects to reduce the risk of unanticipated personal emergencies or other risks. Apart from reducing the risk, this also helps with improving team morale as the engineers have someone else to bounce ideas off—and share the workload.

6. Put things in writing. It is important to document commitments or decisions made during your hallway or informal conversations in writing for future reference. Putting things in writing often leads to more careful consideration and follow-through from your team members.

Personally, I have learned the hard way to always get things in writing to avoid any misunderstandings or miscommunications later.

7. Encourage proof-of-concept development. If your team is stuck in analysis paralysis, or if you are trying out a new technology, get management buy-in to spend time creating a proof of concept or a prototype. This can help to quickly demonstrate the potential of the technology or approach and facilitate faster decision making.

8. Include key stakeholders in reviewing status reports before they are published. Early in my PM career, I gave more importance to adhering to timelines than to aligning with key stakeholders. One time, I marked a project as red (behind plan) in a report without first discussing it with the manager of the team that was running behind. That manager was unavailable, and I did not want to delay publishing the status report.

I went ahead and published the report without reviewing it with him. This had unexpected negative consequences, including the manager having to explain the red status to multiple members of the leadership team.

Since then, I have been more careful about how I report project statuses. Before turning a project status red, it is important to consider possible mitigation plans and to review the status with all relevant cross-functional team members and their management. This may slow down the process, but it ensures that all key stakeholders are aware and aligned on the status.

9. Identify projects/programs to cancel. Deciding to cancel a project or program can be challenging, especially if a lot of time and resources have been invested. However, it is important to consider whether the project is still delivering the value that was expected.

Don't let the sunk-cost fallacy (the tendency to continue investing in something simply because of the resources that have already been spent) influence your decision making. It's better to cancel a project and move on to higher-value projects rather than continuing to invest in something that is no longer worthwhile.

10. Be cautious about reporting program status as green/on track. In my experience, it is rare for all the projects in a program to be on track. If you do encounter a situation where all the projects seem to be progressing as per the plan, it’s important to carefully assess the situation and verify that thorough risk analysis has been done.

While there are several other valuable lessons I've learned, I've distilled my most valuable lessons into these top 10 nuggets of wisdom. Project management veterans, what valuable insights have you gained throughout your career? Share your nuggets of wisdom in the comments section below!

Posted by Sree Rao on: January 03, 2023 01:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (25)

6 Steps for Rational Decision Making

By Sree Rao, PMP, PgMP, PMI-ACP

Decision making

Have you ever made a program or project decision that did not turn out to be the right one? As program managers, we not only need to make several decisions over the course of a project or program, but we also need to guide our teams with decision making.

Here is a framework to help you make decisions based on data and objective criteria. I heard about the RICIE model in a strategic management course, and found it to be really helpful to internalize the steps needed for rational decision making. Here I am proposing the RISCIE model, which is a minor modification to that model.

The RISCIE framework has six steps:

1. Recognize the problem/opportunity: In this phase, identify an opportunity or a problem that you want to solve. If it is a problem, identify the root cause of the problem. Do not mistake symptoms for problems. Example: Team members are consistently missing deadlines. This is a symptom that is a result of either bad planning, unclear requirements or team members’ lack of experience.

2. Identify solution criteria: Most of the time, we jump to solutions instead of identifying the solution criteria. To choose the best solution, come up with a list of criteria that the solution must meet. Example: The solution must be implemented in three months to meet the launch date, or should cost below a certain amount. Prioritize the criteria.

3. Solutions exploration: Analyze possible solutions that would fit the solution criteria. Do not stop with just one solution—explore multiple ones.

4. Choose a preferred course of action: In this step, evaluate all the solutions against each of the criteria that were identified in Step 2. Choose the solution that meets the most criteria. If there are multiple solutions that meet all the criteria, evaluate if there is a possibility to do a quick prototype or proof of concept of each of the solutions. This would uncover any pros/cons of the solutions that were missed in Step 3.

5. Implement the preferred course of action: The next step is to implement the chosen action. Ensure that any solution criteria that were defined upfront are indeed being met with this solution.

6. Evaluate the results and follow up as necessary: Lastly, evaluate the results. Ensure all the KPIs are being measured, and operationalize the solution. Do a lessons-learned or a retrospective session to use them for subsequent decisions.

Ensure everything is documented and that all the key stakeholders are involved in every step of this process. While this process does not guarantee successful outcomes, it does guarantee that your decisions are based on data and objective criteria. Do not measure the success of a decision based on the outcome (outcome bias). I plan to write my next post around this topic. Stay tuned!

What tips do you have for rational decision making in your projects and programs? What mistakes have you made, and what are your lessons learned?

Posted by Sree Rao on: September 15, 2022 11:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)
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