In my project management career, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on different projects all over the world. As with most things in life (like having a flat auto tire or forgetting to pay the electric bill), projects mirror the practical realities of life. One of the takeaways from those experiences has been the commonality of successful project management approaches no matter the geographical location of the projects.
A key characteristic that I have observed over time is how projects and project management resemble a meritocracy independent of personal bias. Projects need to be complete with desired outcomes in a specific period of time. As one completes ever more large and complex projects, one grows in their career as a project manager. This career growth occurs regardless of the race, gender or other characteristics of the project manager.
As with many other merit-based professions such as healthcare, aviation, athletics and science, the introduction of personal bias with project management would be detrimental to the completion of any project. That’s why project management as a profession is a great equalizer given its heavy dependence on the skills and capabilities of a project manager.
In thinking about how project management is a great equalizer, I offer the following thoughts:
1. The project doesn’t know who is managing it. Projects are an interesting construct that is hard to categorize under the typical laws of physics; they don’t have weight, exhibit motion or temperature. Projects do have the characteristic of being a collection of activities and assets that need to be brought together to produce desired outcomes.
In this regard, a project by definition is immune from any personal bias; it’s a matter of solving a three-dimensional problem using people, process and technology. A project manager needs to be skilled at resource, schedule, dependency and stakeholder management in order to solve for desired outcomes. The project itself does not prefer the personal background of the project manager; it awaits the proper project management disciplines to be employed in order to complete its required objectives.
2. Successful project managers find the best people. People represent one of the key factors in any project. When compared against process and technology components, the acquisition of the best people plays a more significant factor in the success of any project. However, the acquisition of people for a project also poses the possibility for personal bias. As a project manager, you have to be able to find the best people for the project independent of subjective perceptions.
A CEO of a global company once said it took him 20 years to get a point where he could identify good people more than half the time. My observations of project managers early in their careers bear this out; they tend to be more subjective in selecting resources that they like and perceive would work well on their team; read this behavior as easier to manage. The more experienced project managers more discreetly evaluate competencies than subjective factors; this is key, as no matter the personal affinity or how easy (or difficult) the person is perceived to manage, the most critical dimension of people for a project is their competencies.
3. Project management metrics show no bias. One of my favorite quips about project metrics, especially when they are not favorable, is “You can’t beat the laws of physics.” If metrics show a project to be over budget or with late milestones, those are intractable project “laws of physics” that need to be addressed by the responsible project manager.
To a great degree, project metrics are designed to not show any personal bias. They are a physical expression of project reality that can’t be influenced by personal factors of the project manager. Metrics are equal in every regard to serve as an unbiased foundation from which remedial project actions are taken.
In my early years as a project manager, I have to admit I made every possible project management judgement error on my projects. Over time and with some valuable guidance from experienced project managers, I grew into leading ever larger initiatives. As part of that growth path, I observed that the most experienced project managers had left any notion of personal bias behind in their project management execution. Their focus on the core dynamics of a project, finding the best people and anticipating conditions that would lead to unfavorable metrics were key factors in their success.
I welcome any commentary on the concept of project management being one of the purest forms of meritocracy that by design can’t rely on personal bias to achieve success.
By Ramiro Rodrigues
In the 2009 film Knowing, a boy finds a time capsule filled with documents from decades ago. His father, an astrophysics professor, then discovers that the messages list some recent and impending major disasters, and even predict a global calamity in the near future.
Apocalyptic visions of an imminent end to the world have always brought joy to the film industry—but they bump into the same logical limitations that are still impossible to overcome. As far as we know, we do not have an effective technology capable of predicting the future. Whether it is related to weather forecasting, economics or sociology, we are not able to tell, at present, precisely what will happen at a specific moment in the future.
What we have always had is a great will to take a chance and get it right. Since the beginning of time, man has ventured to predict the future and, during these attempts, we’ve come up with an ocean of predictions that have been proven wrong. But we don't give up.
A New Model of Scheduling
In today’s organizations, modern project management has to meet the need for schedule development that seeks, in a deterministic fashion, to set the estimated dates of future events related to people, project deliveries and work that will be executed. This usually is a great Achilles' heel in the field of project management. The organizational frustration that results from estimated scheduled activities that turn out to be incorrect is very common.
Why don’t they happen as expected? There are different reasons, usually related to people and intrinsic characteristics of the expected activities. But in essence, they happen because it still is impossible to predict the future. Of course, there are some strategies that can help mitigate the risks of the deterministic forecast, but in the end, they are only predictions.
However, we must understand that organizations need to estimate when the returns on their investments will be accessible for use. Some executives will say that there is no progress without clear and foreseen goals.
That’s right. But how do we get out of this complex scenario in which future dates are determined but do not happen as planned?
One trend that has been applied by industries such as consulting, engineering and research & development is the probabilistic forecast of schedules. In this case, with the assistance of simple statistical concepts, the forecasts of the activities and of the project are viewed as a whole, with probability ranges to conclude them.
It is not solely a mathematical solution; the change is conceptual. The idea is no longer to set, within the organization, the delivery estimates at certain dates grounded on the expectation that they will come true. Rather, the goal is to present length ranges that provide the company with a perspective that there is, for instance, a 68 percent, 95 percent or 99.7 percent chance that the project delivery will take place during the expected dates.
This change in principle allows for the understanding that one can never be 100 percent sure of what will happen in the future but, at the same time, enables the management of the risks involved with reasonable control.
This planning model can bring, in the near future, more maturity and quality to the management of schedules and deliveries.
Do you use this model in your organization? Share your thoughts below.
By Conrado Morlan
As a project management practitioner, I’ve been lucky enough to deploy programs and projects across the Americas, supported by teams in South Asia and Europe.
Working on those assignments enriched my multicultural background and helped me learn and become proficient in Portuguese. But as I’ve learned throughout my career, language is just the tip of the iceberg.
Based on my personal experiences, here are three key areas of focus I recommend that practitioners consider before, during and even after their next global assignment:
It is imperative that global project management professionals understand an individual's personal, national and organizational cultures, so they can better align the team and gain greater influence.
Learn about the country’s culture—do your research and find out similarities and differences. Include cultural differences as one of the topics on the agenda of the kick-off meeting. Use that time as an open forum for everyone to share and record their cultural experiences. Keep those cultural experiences in a repository with documents and useful video clips that can be later used to induct new team members.
Cultural awareness is a skill that should be developed and mastered. Incorporating a cultural differences exercise establishes respect and empathy for diverse values and behaviors, which in turn creates an open and accepting team environment.
As a global project management professional, you may worry about resource planning. Resources may not be your direct reports, meaning you don’t have control over their schedules.
Instead of struggling, apply the Chinese army approach: Imagine you have unlimited resources available. Assume you have resources with the right skills who can be assigned to the different roles in your project. Do not worry yet about assigning names to the roles.
You may find that the roles can’t be filled with internal resources because of a lack of required skills or capacity, so your solution may be to outsource resources.
To complement the approach, you’ll need to adapt and remaster communication and negotiation skills, which will help you get the best resources.
The project management profession now goes beyond just managing projects. The profession helps to achieve business objectives and explore new ways to lead, execute and deliver. Technical expertise in project management is not enough; global project management practitioners must adopt a business-oriented approach.
My suggestion is to become SMART. The SMART concept includes a portfolio of skills the global project management practitioner must master to meet the needs of the organization in the coming years.
Being SMART means you are:
To become SMARTer, global project management professionals need to continually strive for excellence and master new skills to support professional growth and help the organization achieve its business strategy.
If you’ve been exposed to global programs or projects, what advice would you offer to other practitioners?
by Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP
Most people leave organizational cultures, not managers.
Organizational culture is defined as the collective behaviors, thoughts, norms and language of the people in the organization that signifies the "way of working." It represents the overall support system and resources of the organization.
For example, if employees regularly start meetings late, then the culture of the organization may be to begin meetings late ("it's just the way things are"). Newcomers quickly learn this unwritten norm, and adapt to the late meetings, further propelling the status quo.
It's important to understand that people leave organizational cultures because portfolios and programs can represent significant change to the organization—requiring new ways of working, behaviors and new operating agreements defined to support the change. However, if the organization is resistant to change—and the traditional ways of working remain—how do you change the culture?
First, let us understand why people leave the organizational culture and what we can do to model the right behaviors as leaders:
1. Misaligned Vision and Leadership
A common complaint is that there is "no perspective of where the organization is headed and not being able to see how my role fits into the bigger picture."
Leaders, starting at the top, must role model the behaviors they expect. Rather than simply talk about the vision or the strategy, they must roll up their sleeves to translate the vision very specifically and tangibly into everyone's work.
This is typically done through the strategic portfolio—employees identify with a stack ranking of strategic initiatives that communicate the most essential programs and projects of the organization. Each executive sponsor must then clearly translate the vision into day-to-day actions that the program or project is implementing.
The strategic portfolio represents the "better state" of the targeted culture— what are the behaviors, ways of working, thinking and norms that need to be in the future. This is codified typically through team charters, operating agreements, and ground rules so that everyone on a team follows the same rules and ways of working.
2. Compromised Values, Beliefs and Increased Toxicity
When employees feel they are being coerced into doing things that don't align with their values, they will find other places to use their talents. Behaviors that result during large scale change may be burnout, rumors, and change fatigue.
Mediocrity may have been accepted as good enough, resulting in high performers, leaving the organization due to lack of challenge and opportunities. However, for those that remain, it may be difficult to absorb change since they never had to.
As a portfolio or program leader, you don't need permission, budget or authority to start acting in ways that model high performance. Recognize and reward the right behaviors and call out the wrong behaviors.
Growth needs to be the focus—desire is a powerful emotion—more than the fear/doubt that is often the first reaction when encountering change. The first emotion is Fear/Doubt. Left unmanaged, this can spiral into water cooler conversations, negativity and constant churn.
However, having a growth mindset means that there are opportunities created from changing and learning new skills that can propel that organization to embrace new ways of working.
3. Organizational Structures and Processes that Create Stagnation
Not having structured processes that support high performance creates an environment that people leave. No one wants to stand out when something new is introduced—it's almost like a virus where the antibodies (the current organizational culture) start attacking it. There needs to be a core group of high performers that embrace and spread the targeted organizational culture across the organization.
High performers can't stand waste—wasted time in meetings, wasted use of resources, and wasted opportunities. Is the strategic portfolio management or program management office reporting to the executive leadership team level, or is it buried somewhere within the organization under a functional organization?
Growing organizations embrace change as a constant and adopt a growth mindset.
A growth mindset means that the organization is continually learning and sees change as an opportunity to learn new skills and gain new experiences. Rather than sit back and accept the status quo, we seek out how to design and build the change rather than be just the recipient of the change. Thoughts and mindset ultimately translate into behavior. Motivation and attitude are skills that are just as important as the technical portfolio or program management skills and can be developed over time.
How are you developing your growth mindset?
By Conrado Morlan
I’ve been running for eight-plus years—ever since my son suggested I do a half marathon in San Antonio, Texas, USA. So when a friend suggested I try a triathlon, I was ready for it. At that point, three years ago, I had 10 full marathons and 15 half marathons under my belt.
The triathlon includes three disciplines in a single event: swimming, cycling and running. It was the athletic challenge I needed, similar to the professional challenge I encountered when I moved across industries to keep leading and managing projects.
To get ready for the triathlon, I had to go back to the pool and start swimming after a long time away. I borrowed a road bike from a friend to start the formal training. We worked out on our own on weekdays and as a team on weekends.
That first experience transformed me into a triathlete enthusiast, which led me eventually to the Ironman 70.3. The "70.3" refers to the total distance in miles covered in the race, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.
The short distance triathlons helped prepare me for the Ironman 70.3. And as I’ve come to realize, learnings I’ve made along the way also apply to project management. These are my three main findings:
1. Expertise and Experimentation
Mastering all three disciplines in a triathlon can be difficult. My background is in running, but I was new to swimming and cycling. My coach gave good tips and workouts that helped me manage my bicycle on hills, navigate sharp turns and use all of my leg muscles to have a better stroke.
For swimming, I followed my instinct and experimented with the breaststroke. I soon felt confident in the pool and gradually in open waters. My experiment worked out, as I finished my swim in the Ironman 70.3 about 20 minutes ahead of the cut-off time.
As a project management practitioner, you may have mastered an industry-standard methodology and need to catch up with the new trends. In the triathlon, you may not transfer skills from swimming to cycling or running, but in project management, you can.
Communication, time management, and people management are required regardless of the methodology or best practice that will be used in the project. This gives you room to experiment. At project checkpoints, you can inspect, adapt and make the required changes to improve your project and be successful.
2. Transition Is Key
The transition is where the triathlete moves from one discipline to another, changing equipment. The area should be prepared in advance, with the gear set up in a way that helps the athlete have a smooth and fast transition. The time spent there may define the winner of the competition.
I would compare the transition area with the risk registry. The more prepared the project manager is, the less impact there will be to the project. The “gear” in your risk register will include the most impacting risk(s), the risk owner and the actions required to mitigate the risk if it arises. It’s a working registry, so the project manager should keep adding risks during the project as required.
3. Anybody Can Help You
A triathlon is not a team event, but that does not restrict the triathlete from getting support from others. Before the competition, the athlete may have followed a training plan supported by a coach, they might have been mentored by fellow triathletes and, last but not least, they likely benefited from family support.
It’s common for some triathletes to have a race sherpa on the competition day. The athlete and sherpa will discuss beforehand what tasks each will take on during the race. In short, a race sherpa will lend a hand whenever necessary and cheer for the athlete during the competition.
As a project manager, you have your project team, stakeholders and sponsor(s), but that does not restrict you from getting help from people outside the project. You may have an internal or external mentor, somebody in your organization who can be influential and help you address issues. I used to have a list of people in the organization I contacted in advance. I let them know about the project and asked them if I could ask for support if needed. That simple action helped me on several occasions when I faced a challenge.
If you are an athlete and a project manager, what lessons have you learned from practicing your favorite sport? Please share your thoughts below.