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
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Ramiro Rodrigues
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Recent Posts

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What to Expect: Anticipating and Adapting to Dynamic Economic Trends

Governance Models: The Secret to Successful Agile Projects

3 Valuable PM Lessons I Learned in 2023

The 4 P’s of Successful Modern PMs

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Who Is Your Backup PM?

 

Kevin Korterud

Life is full of surprises…they always seem to show up unexpectedly. As project managers, we rely on our PMI certification training—as well as our experiences—to both detect and mitigate the effects from surprises, such as missed milestones, new regulatory requirements and quality issues.

But what happens when the surprise turns out to be a short-term outage of the project manager? This can come about for a variety of reasons, including family, health and other personal matters. A recent health issue that took me away from a project for a few weeks got me thinking about how to address this special type of surprise.

In my early career days on projects, the short-term loss of a project manager meant the project was typically put on hold until the PM returned. In today’s complex, high-speed technology delivery environment, stopping a project is less viable due to market needs, dependencies, specialized domain knowledge, engaged suppliers and many other factors.

So, in addition to all of the usual risk factors, one has to consider a risk mitigation plan for the project manager should a surprise occur (this plan also applies to other key roles such as the delivery, test and PMO leads).

Let’s look at a few questions to help you prepare for surprises when they occur to the PM role:

                                                       

1. Who could be a backup PM? The process of finding a backup project manager usually falls into two categories: easy…and not so easy. If there are project track leads with prior PM experience, rank order them as to the size and complexity of the prior projects they have managed. Discuss the project(s) with them and create a plan for the areas that you look to build out as part of their duties in being a backup.

If nobody on your project has any prior PM experience, another option could be to consider an existing program management office lead. With today’s complex program office operations, it’s common to have program management office leaders with prior project management experience. They could assist as a backup PM.

 

2. When should you have a backup PM? As one never knows when surprises will occur, the best time to identify a backup project manager is during mobilization of the project. By having a person identified early in the project life cycle, it better positions the backup PM to be successful should a surprise occur.

If it’s not possible to identify and develop a backup at the start of a project, consider an approach that takes advantage of the upcoming or current phase of the project. For example, if the project is headed into the design phase, consider your functional lead as a potential backup. Just be cognizant of the additional burden the backup PM role places on an existing team member; consider additional program office resources to help with the execution of project operational processes.

 

3. How do you make someone a backup PM? After selecting a backup, create a list of topics to educate them in the many facets of the project. This can start with operational topics such as risk/issue reporting, status report and work planning, and cross-training. From there, they can start to be immersed in domain-related topics with the project (e.g., how does a month-end financial close work?). The domain-related topics may require some specialized training if they have not been exposed to them before.

Keep in mind that the backup PM still has their core project duties to execute, so they should not be overburdened with immersion activities. Keep the window for these activities to a few hours each week, and continue them through the life of the project. It is also helpful to bring the backup PM along to attend key project meetings to make them aware—as well as to make other project team members aware of their provisional role in the event of the unexpected.  

 

The days of having a project being placed on hold due to the short-term loss of a project manager are long behind us. In particular, with the highly integrated technology project ecosystem that exists today, the stoppage of one project can impact several others—thus affecting the overall progress of a company portfolio.

Knowing who your backup project manager is offers a mitigation path when surprises occur. In addition, it’s also an essential form of career building by exposing the backup PM to the next level of delivery stewardship.

How have you selected and groomed a backup project manager for your delivery efforts?

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: October 26, 2023 08:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Business Context or Business Acumen? PMs Need Both

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:

  1. One, the business context matters.
  2. Two, business acumen will make you a better project manager.

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?

Posted by David Wakeman on: August 08, 2023 07:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Supercharging an Organization’s Performance to Achieve its Mission

By Peter Tarhanidis, Ph.D.

There is a dramatic increase in the strategies corporations implement to meet the needs of their stakeholders. Driving value from all parts of an organization and its functions may seem like repetitive exercises—and even feel more like a medieval gauntlet with only a few successful programs. HBR (2021) wrote that by 2027, about 88 million people will be working in project management—with economic activity reaching $20 trillion USD. Also noted: Only 35% of projects are successful, leaving immense waste of resources.

There are many reasons projects fail. HBR (2021) states of the 70% of failed projects, and after exhaustive root-cause analysis across all industries, one can identify common themes such as undervaluing project management skills and methods, and poor performance. Yet organizations that apply project management methods recognized their performance had a 2.5 more times chance to be successful, and organizations can waste 28 times less resources. As such, when applied, the implementation of PM methods works.

Yet in a world filled with a variety of project taxonomies, many organizational boards are now contemplating the need to implement environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Forbes states the benefits of ESG and CSR initiatives include:

  1. Advancing organizational culture, empowering staff to do social good, and welcoming diversity.
  2. Encouraging partners and investors who are interested in long-run strategy to manage risks and opportunities by emphasizing the organization’s ethics.
  3. Raising an organization’s staff confidence and productivity, creating a workplace that achieves the business mission.

Therefore, to ensure success for ESG and CSR programs, an organization’s top leaders need to prioritize and align across all the organization’s businesses. Leaders can use the balanced scorecard to achieve this alignment, and can extend its use across the entire project portfolio.

This theory was developed by Kaplan and Norton, which state the balanced scorecard method converts the organization’s strategy into performance objectives, measures, targets and initiatives. Linking the concept of cause and effect, the balanced scorecard covers four perspectives:

  1. Customer: How do customers see us?
  2. Internal: What must we excel at?
  3. Innovation and learning: Can we continue to improve and create value?
  4. Financial: How do we look to shareholders?

Marr (N.B.) reported over 50% of companies have used this approach in the United States, the United Kingdom, Northern Europe and Japan. One clear benefit has been to align the organization’s structure to achieve its strategic goals.

In conclusion, applying project management methods and aligning an organization’s performance through the balanced scorecard can unlock ESG and CSR benefits that can supercharge a company’s efforts to achieve its mission.

References

  1. HBR: The Project Economy Has Arrived
  2. HBR: The Balanced Scorecard—Measures that Drive Performance
  3. Project Management Statistics: Trends and Common Mistakes in 2023
  4. Forbes: Three Reasons Why CSR And ESG Matter to Businesses
  5. Balanced Scorecard: How Many Companies Use This To
Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: June 14, 2023 04:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

3 Signs Your Organization Isn’t PM Ready

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.)

Beware!

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:

  1. An appreciation of the role of the PM. You are a leader, not a magician.
  2. A clear definition of success, not just platitudes.
  3. Resources. Maybe not everything I wanted, but more than “promises” or “commitments.”

I’m curious what things you have noticed that set an organization’s projects up for failure. Let us know in the comments below.

           

           

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 19, 2023 06:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

4 Keys to Lead Through Uncertainty

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?

  1. There is no such thing as perfection.
  2. If you just focus on improvement and value, you’ll be surprised how much you get done. Plus, you’ll find that sense of peace we talked about above when you simplify the job you are doing.
  3. Progress is something you can measure. With measurement, you can create momentum and you can see the impact you are making—which helps remove some of the feeling of uncertainty.

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.

Posted by David Wakeman on: March 08, 2023 07:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)
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