by Maria Isabel Specht, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
When I retired from the petroleum industry after 31 years as a researcher and project manager in Venezuela’s hyper-inflated economic conditions, it would have been easy for me to accept my son’s offer to support me and stay at home. Instead, I took on the new phase of my life with a curiosity that has left me continuing to develop as a project manager, an educator, and even a mom and a grandma. That journey, and the growth I’ve experienced, have inspired me to develop a new project management mantra: projects are led by people, done by people, and made for people.
I entered my retirement with an intellectual curiosity that led me to pursue education in neuro-linguistics programming (NLP). I realized that I could still improve the way that I communicate, even after a full career in a competitive industry. I learned to develop active listening skills that allowed me to do something I call “designing my conversations.” This means I work to listen and respond in my interactions, and to understand the unique circumstances of the people I communicate with. It also means I focus on achieving specific goals through my conversations. My colleagues at NLP School noticed my interest and recommended I consider additional training as an ontology coach. I began to have a realization: communication and project delivery are deeply related.
I began applying more of my communication tools in project environments. With the help of two philosopher mentors, I envisioned projects as a net of conversations. In these conversations, people are bringing their own backgrounds, their emotions, their fears and their personal goals. By understanding the people’s motivations, I am able to listen and understand better–and this has led me to better project outcomes. When project leaders view their projects as nets, they can coordinate efforts and understand impacts across the project. They become more effective.
On the other hand, when I looked into projects that showed no success, I considered that there must be something we were not considering. I asked myself, “What if we are not considering that a main focus of projects is people?” The success of projects is based on people–and people can be successful if they have empowering conversations.
As project leaders, we need to endorse our team members by actively listening to them and valuing them. We have an opportunity to create this environment on our teams, which will increase the team’s effectiveness and lead to better outcomes. Even though we are in a hostile economic environment in Venezuela, we are still having fun on our project teams because we have a sense of community, we are working in collaboration, and we deserve it.
I see messages about the communication processes – emitters and receivers, but what about the emotions? I propose that a fundamental principle of project management is to nurture a project environment that values individual commitment, collaboration, and communication.
Now, I work at the university level as a “divergent teacher”—I do not deliver a master class of lectures to my students. I teach my students, aspiring mechanical engineers, through projects. And as I teach them, I encourage them to apply active listening techniques and to design their conversations. Sometimes, they apply these skills on our in-class project teams. Other times, they take these skills into their personal lives and report out on communications with their others. I joke with my students that even my son is one of my stakeholders. The next generation of project leaders will be more impactful—and better off—if they are able to navigate in the complex web of project communications using active listening and designed conversations. This leads to the coordination of actions for making decisions, building relationships, evaluating new possibilities, and creating new realities.
By: Maricarmen Suarez, PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition Development Team member
Is project management a science or an art? While we could debate this fun question for decades, I think we can all agree that there are elements of both. Our profession continues to evolve with a focus on quality, globalization of reach, and the velocity of change—we have seen it all. But first things first, at the center of it all, we see one thing in common—people. I genuinely believe that it is those human interactions that help us deliver value through project management. Consequently, a fundamental principle of project management seems to be stakeholder engagement.
Anyone that is impacted by changes can be considered a stakeholder. It is critical to define who our stakeholders are, acknowledge their motives and define their engagement, as well as understand their level of involvement and sphere of influence. As a practitioner who is continuously assessing the stakeholder pool, I ask myself daily that old question: “where should I spend my time and energy? With the optimists? The naysayers? Or the ones sitting on the fence?” I’m not sure there is a right answer to that, but my experience has taught me that the best solution is “all of the above.”
The optimist will always have a positive, can-do attitude. They help you move your initiative forward and, depending on their level, they can prove to be an invaluable resource to influence others.
As for the naysayers, it is essential to understand their drivers, i.e., what motivates them? Why are they against the project? What would it take to get them to a middle ground? Is there an unidentified risk, either opportunity or threat, that may have been overlooked? By no means, am I suggesting that everyone can or should be converted to the “right” side of an initiative; but as a project leader, my role is to ensure that everyone has a voice and that needs are met. I guarantee that while the naysayers may never be cheerleaders beaming with support, they have enough to be able to compromise and not derail or stop our initiatives.
That leaves the ones on the fence—those on the middle ground that can go either way but are choosing to stay on the sidelines to see what happens next. These stakeholders are the ones I find myself spending more time and energy with. Simply because I consider them sponges. The fence-sitters feed off of other stakeholders. While I can’t control every channel and every interaction of these stakeholders, I can ensure they have the right amount of information to make an informed decision.
Some best practices I use to proactively engage stakeholders include:
I consider stakeholder engagement a pivotal principle—projects are undertaken by people, for people. As practitioners, we have a unique opportunity to engage and serve stakeholders proactively. As they say in the flight safety briefings, always put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others.
Nick Clemens, PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition Development Team member
As a project manager I find myself immersed in uncertainties and change. People roll on and off my program teams, my management chain changes frequently, and my customer base is in flux. I am a contractor for a larger US Federal Department and even within the US Federal bureaucracy change comes quick and often. I think for large bureaucracies the problem is not change, it’s here and must be dealt with. The problem is adaption and response.
The same is true for projects. Project leaders must adapt and overcome. Our response as project leaders must insure the on-time delivery of our products and services within project constraints. This is how we deliver benefits that create value for our customers and companies alike. And for those who like to deliver incrementally, I’m also talking to you. Implicit in the idea of a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is the delivery of a benefit that creates inherent value for both the user and the supplying enterprise.
So how do we keep track of where we are going with everything changing around us? To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, If you don't know where you're going, any road can take you there. The answer is to go back to basics. Basic project management principles provide us with a framework to guide us when our projects are troubled. The PMBOK® Guide–Seventh Edition development team is taking just that approach in updating The Standard for Project Management. We are looking at a better way to guide project leaders using a principles-based approach that will allow flexible responses to an environment fraught with change and uncertainty.
So, what’s a project management principle that could help us to navigate our complex environments and keep track of where we are going? It has to do with “systems thinking” and is related to a management principle from the risk area, “work to balance threats and opportunities.” The principle I am thinking of is around the idea of Think Holistically.
Holistic thinking tells us to get out of the weeds, to see the forest for the trees. In other words, as a project leader have a vision for your project. That vision should include your project’s purpose, value to be delivered, impact to the business environment, and its effect on the people involved. Holistic thinking also includes understanding the trade-off space to ensure the team delivers outputs that will drive outcomes. It allows self-organization of work but keeps the pieces integrated. Holistic thinking challenges assumptions and mental models to broaden the possible solution space.
Whether managing a group of work packages to a project plan or integrating a couple of scrum teams to deliver a MVP according to a release plan, the challenge to the project leader is the same—keeping on track to meet our customer’s vision and expectations and delivering outcomes, even if the precise end goal is not fully defined at present. I didn’t say it would be easy. In most cases the days of the practically perfect project plans went out with the departure of Mary Poppins, not in the most recent Disney sequel, but in the original 1964 movie! To say the least, a principles-based approach to project management has been a long time coming.
So, think holistically to keep the focus of your project 100% aligned with your customer’s vision and expectations. Remember as the project leader your job is to deliver and create value for your customers and company. Everything else is in the weeds. The key is to recognize, evaluate, and respond to the dynamic circumstances within and surrounding the project delivery systems as the systems interact and react with each other.
by: Klaus Nielsen, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
Did you know that many organizations have unsuccessfully tried to implement an off-the-shelf, or ready-made, project management methodology and found that it was unsuitable for their projects, their organization, and their level of organizational project management maturity?
This often results in a lot of money, time and effort spent with little return and a decrease in staff morale. The one-size-fits-all approach is not working, because no two projects are the same. Different people, clients, vendors, technologies, cultures, approaches, sizes and such require extensive tailoring.
Designing the delivery approach based on the context of the project, its objectives, stakeholders, and the environment is much more difficult than it may sound. Designing the delivery approach requires tailoring. We use tailoring to our project management methodology with the hope of buy-in from team members. In some cases, a tailored approach produces a more customer-oriented focus, centers on best-for-project approach, and reflects a more efficient use of project resources. It also helps to ensure that when the team agrees to use specific processes, tools, or ceremonies, everyone is aligned, and use is consistent.
But who has not experienced the damage from tailoring not done correctly? I have! It’s when project team members are not using the methodology, independently modifying the methodology, or following the process for the sake of the process.
When we tailor, we have a wide range of options. I tend to look at the processes and see whether it would work or not. Often, I have been faced with too many processes of little value. In some cases, inputs, tools, and techniques may be omitted or changed to make them work within a specific context. Also, when tailoring I examine the level of documentation required, as it’s often a great chunk of work. I want to make sure all project artefacts, documents, and plans provide value — not just documentation for the sake of documentation. Thinking back, if you had to apply everything the same way to all your projects for the last 20 years, that would be a nightmare. Firstly, I rarely do the same kind of projects the same way twice. Secondarily, if I had to do it all over, I would make a lot of changes (hopeful that I have learned something along the way). Think of tailoring as your opportunity to apply lessons learned.
I think it’s difficult to talk about tailoring without touching upon efficiency and effectiveness. Now it becomes slightly trickier. I don’t see one without the other. I know some of you may have concerns about the connotations of these terms, so let me try to explain my view.
Effectiveness talks to providing our customers with value through product delivery and producing the intended or expected result. It is also associated with the results from the actions of the team members and the project manager.
On the other hand, efficiency talks to how we are performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort. It is also associated with how things are done.
Who has not heard the following statement: “The fundamental reason why projects are late is because of inefficient use of resources. My job as a project leader is to move our expertise around to tackle as much work as possible, and to do so seamlessly?” In this case, efficiency means getting more work done with the least loss of time, which is done by maximizing utilization. In this case, efficient IS effective. In my native language of Danish, we use the same term for these two concepts.
For others, efficiency is a poison. For them it also means maximizing utilization, which requires that we overcommit and confuse our staff, leaving them no slack to breathe or innovate. To them, efficient is the OPPOSITE of effective. However, that was not the intention.
Just to wrap it up: Design the delivery approach based on the context of the project, its objectives, stakeholders, and the environment. Maximize value, manage costs, develop flow and enhance speed by utilizing just enough process. I think there might be a principle or two in there.
By: Nader K. Rad, PMBOK® Guide-Seventh Edition Development Team member
Once Upon a Time!
There was a policy in one of the companies I used to work for about 20 years ago: “Every procurement activity should be done in the headquarters, rather than in projects’ construction sites”. They believed it was more cost-effective.
One day, I realized that in one of the attempts at cost-effectively purchasing material for covering the joints of concrete sections, the process was so prolonged that the critical concrete work was paused in one of the sites for four days. I was the project planner at that time and I immediately went to the project manager, who simply told me that organizational processes should be respected! I went to the procurement department and realized that we just didn’t speak the same language. So I went back to my desk, called the project site, and asked the technician responsible for that section whether they could buy the material locally. He said they could do it in one hour. The cost? Only about €250 for two weeks’ supply!
I sent them €250 from my own pocket to buy the material and resume work. The company reimbursed me but asked me not to do something like that again, and of course, I kept doing that.
I’m sure you’re thinking about many problems in this scenario: They needed a more proactive project manager, they needed to use “manage by exception”, etc.
One aspect of the problem was that they cared about money (which is fine), but not in the correct way. It’s not only about the money we spend, but also about the money we [can] gain. What we want to optimize is not the cost, but the “benefits ÷ cost” ratio – given that we consider all types of benefits, short-term and long-term, and direct and indirect (e.g., reputation, market reach, and knowledge).
This relatively subjective “benefits ÷ cost” ratio is what we usually call business value, or value for short. We can always ask ourselves whether our selected choice is the one that contributes most to the value of the project/product.
Do you consider value in your decisions?
The other problem is that they were not adaptive enough.
When we talk about adaptation, it’s usually about adapting the product of the project to the environment, which is what happens in adaptive (Agile) projects and is very important and interesting. However, that’s not the only type of adaptation; there’s another one that applies to every type of project: adaptation of our delivery and management approach to their environment.
In my example, those problems could have been prevented if proper planning and risk management were in place. However, for some reason, that level didn’t exist. In such a case, when we see that we can’t fix our planning and risk-management system in order to have the ideal procurement method, we need to change our procurement method to adapt to this situation and prevent bigger problems.
Do you stick to your ideal methods or adapt to the environment?
Another issue with concrete work in that project was that the concrete was going to be exposed in the final product, and therefore, we needed to do some extra work to make sure the surface was clean enough. One day, someone suggested a simpler way of doing that; according to experienced engineers, the quality was much lower, but it was a lot faster and less expensive. So we decided to experiment with something!
The project was for building a central library in a university, and we had access to thousands of end-users! We offered €30 to any student who wanted to join our experiment, and we picked the first 100 volunteers. We had two walls finished, one with each of the two methods, and we asked the students to tell us which one was better. In the end, we found no significant difference in the number of votes for the two methods, and we concluded that the new method was as good as the old one for our end-users, and so we decided to proceed with it.
It happens a lot: Either we spend too much money on an element of the product that doesn’t make any difference for the end-users, or we make it in a way that doesn’t satisfy them.
Isn’t it a good idea to focus on outcomes before outputs and activities?
It doesn’t matter what type of project we have; it seems like we can always ask these three questions in our activities and decision-making process:
If these have the potential to help us in all or most projects, then maybe we’re talking about principles for running projects! Perhaps those principles could be summarized as: