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 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!