Over the last few months, since the publication of my book Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strength-Based Project Management, I have been speaking to project managers from all around the world about how the science of Character Strengths can help us build engagement, increase productivity and creativity and help us to get stuff done.
I have been sharing my study of over 250 project managers who have taken the free VIA Character Strengths Survey to get their personalized 24-strength ranking, which shows that on average project managers are lower in Social Intelligence and Perspective than our colleagues, but are higher in Teamwork, Perseverance, Prudence and Forgiveness.
Source, ALLE LLC Study (unpublished), 2019
The feedback from the audiences has been terrific, and here I am sharing the three most common questions I receive:
Q1. What do I do about my lowest strengths - my weaknesses?
Let's clear up this unfortunate misconception right way. It is a misconception for three key reasons:
So love all your strengths! They are all there for you when you want and need them.
Q2 What if my top strengths don't seem to have anything to do with leadership? I don't even have the strength of Leadership in my top 10!
Across the world, the strength of Leadership ranks somewhere in the middle on average, somewhere around 11 out of the 24. Being a great leader is not about using a specific strength well or a lot, it is about using the strengths you have to best effect AND about seeing strengths in others and helping them to use theirs too.
Gallup research shows that up to 70% of the difference between staff turnover between different teams is related in some way to managers. We are managers, and so we are part of that statistic. Further evidence from Gallup and other researchers show that when managers help staff see, appreciate and use their strengths at work each day, staff are more likely to report feeling engaged, and seeing work as a calling and are less likely to leave.
So don't focus on what you don't have, focus on the strengths you do have and how they can help. In the book, I share this profile and explanation from someone who was identified by management and staff alike as a leader. (Leadership ranked 12 for her.) Her self-analysis of how she uses her strengths is below.
Source, Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management p124
Q3 Where do I start if I want to use character strengths with my team?
The answer is easy! Start with you. Use the 6 step approach to strengths-based project management (left) and follow steps 1- 3. They are all about you. When you know your strengths, you target your strengths, and you model your strengths, others are automatically influenced. They see your behavior, and your mood and they will follow your lead. Humans are wired to connect and are wired to mirror the behavior and mood of others. So set the tone! Then when you are ready, follow steps 4 - 6 and start applying your strengths knowledge to the people around you!
Want to know more, watch my webinar on ProjectManagement.com here:
or message me here on ProjectManagement.com!
In the latest edition of the PMBOK, there was a small but significant change in the language around stakeholders. Instead of Stakeholder management, the focus of the PM is stakeholder engagement. What does this change mean?
Management – a definition
When I think of management, I think of control, of guidance, of constraints. Indeed, when I Googled “management definition” I got the following result “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.”
To me, the key word here is controlling. Even the notion of dealing with stakeholders conjures up images of difficult conversations, and unreasonable demands.
When we engage stakeholders there is much more sense of give and take, and exchange of information, and sharing of perspective and insights. Stakeholders are no longer to be kept at bay or at arms’ length. They are to be woven into the fabric of the project at every stage and their input is to help guide the project to success. This is quite a mindset shift.
There are four pertinent balancing tests to think about with stakeholder engagement.
This is more than gathering a list of people who have an interest in the project or program. This is also the process of understanding what motivates them, how interested they are. How will they be affected – positively or negatively – by the project outcome?
And what they want is multi-faceted too. What do they want from the project? And what do they want in terms of involvement in the project? How do they want to communicate? People have different levels of interest in the project, different reasons for that interest and different ways of absorbing and processing information. We sometimes forget that!
This is an exploration of where they sit in the organizational structure - more than seniority or job title, this considers their networks and contacts within the organization. For example, I worked with an operational manager who had great influence over the decision making of the CIO. Knowing that helped me to position my discussions with him to take account of what the next conversation would be – the one with his friend, and consequently what my next conversation would be – with my boss the CIO.
Considering each stakeholder’s sphere of influence looks at the networks this stakeholder has, and any special responsibility they have been given for this project that extends beyond their normal formal – and informal – role. For example, in one organization, an individual had been given a special responsibility on the project to review all procurement agreements because they had experience of this in a past position.
Every stakeholder has ways that they can help projects be successful. And those ways are not always the obvious one. Sometimes they have special knowledge, they know the context of the project, the history of past change efforts or know what the real goals are of the organization. Other times they know the right people, have a great understanding of corporate culture and have that special way of getting difficult things done. Or they may have a really good understanding of customer behavior and can help the team make good design decisions.
The other side of the coin is how they might hinder. The most obvious way is not being available when you need them, but there are subtle ways stakeholders can create a drag on a project if they don’t feel appropriately engaged and connected. They may push for conflicting projects or pull resources away from your project to a pet project of their own.
This may be the single most important consideration in stakeholder management/engagement. The first part of this equation is to ask:
How do they want to be engaged? What is their interest and commitment to the project and how do they want that commitment reflected?
I have had stakeholders who were willing to be contacted at any time to offer advice, an opinion or just to be a sounding board. They have come to lunch and learns, shared insights into customer needs and desires, shared the organizational vision. They have been project advisors, mentors, and coaches – they are like gold and in some places like seeing a Unicorn!
By sharing and inviting feedback it has been possible for me to change the role of a stakeholder. By explaining how I see them supporting the project, why we see them that way and why we want them to engage in that way, it is often possible to craft a role for them that goes beyond their initial expectation.
This is also a great time to use some strengths-spotting. It is often the case that people do not really appreciate what they bring to the table or how they can use it to best effect. I have experience of a stakeholder whose greatest strengths were kindness and teamwork. When he was first assigned to the project as the “Business Owner” he was at a loss as to what he could bring. He felt he had little expertise in what we were trying to do, and his initial request was that I just keep him updated once a week with whatever dashboard I had been using for his predecessor. We had a conversation and it was clear that he was skilled at connecting with people. As we explored his interests and his strengths, it quickly became apparent that he could provide context for the project team, connections to valuable resources throughout the organization and would show up and give the team moral support when things got tough!
Choosing the mode, frequency and content of communications with stakeholders is key. Evaluate every medium. Maybe it is a dashboard, and email update, a weekly meeting, or a phone call at a prearranged time. Or maybe it is a Vlog – a videoed update that you can put in a shared location for people to access at their convenience – a newsletter that is available for download or a weekly lunch & learn. Find out what works for your stakeholders and be prepared to communicate in many ways.
Finally, consider whether the stakeholder’s role will remain static throughout the project. Have a regular check in during longer term projects to make sure the stakeholder list or matrix is current. Review the methods and level of communication periodically to keep things on track.
As project professionals we often spend a lot of time considering our process, and yet experience and research shows the biggest return on investment is from the people. Spend time with the people, and the people will make your project the best it can be.
A few weeks ago, a coaching client of mine asked me to explain stakeholder management. He wanted me to provide him with a definitive list of his stakeholders for his particular project. He described the project to me as follows:
“We are developing a new customer accounting system that will allow customers easier access to their financial accounts while increasing security, reducing the opportunity for accounts to be “hacked” and supporting greater self-service. While customer support staff will still be needed for special activities, large financial transactions, handling overseas wire transfers and the final steps in account opening, most account activities will be put in the hands of the account owner.”
“Who are my stakeholders?” he asked.
Four stages of Stakeholder Management
There are four basic steps in stakeholder management.
First, we want to identify who the stakeholders are. Often, we focus on the people who will benefit from the initiative, supporters of the project. It is important to remember that the broad group “stakeholders” includes anyone who has an interest in the project – positive or negative.
Clearly, in the case of my coaching client, this would include the customers who will change the way they do business, and it will include the sponsor of the project, the team designing, building and testing the new software, any department whose workflow will be impacted,
We loosely identified stakeholder groups as people who:
TIP: Brainstorm the list with as many people as possible. Using a RACI or RASCI matrix can help you focus on what sort of involvement you expect them to have. Get all the possible stakeholders on the list that you can. It is easy to remove people. It can be painful to bring someone new up to speed that you missed first time around.
For each stakeholder group, my client made a further list of the members and he started to highlight those who might have special requests or special interest in the project beyond that suggested by their organizational role.
My client continued to fill out his grid, assessing which stakeholders warranted individual attention and which could be gathered together as a group. He then planned a series of meetings and calls to explore expectations, next steps and the process for building the ongoing relationship. He paid particular attention to the sphere of influence and discovered that several of the individual stakeholders had influence beyond the scope of their official role. This led to him adding two stakeholders who at first did not seem to be impacted by the project:
TIP: Consider sphere of influence and be ready for surprise stakeholders!
This comes down to discussing and agreeing expectations with each stakeholder or stakeholder group. Explore their ideas for how to be engaged. Come up with four or five key ways to engage and communicate.
My client spoke with his stakeholders and came up with the following menu of options:
Not all the options highlighted were used all the time. My client created a communication plan that incorporated all these various forms of communication. He also worked out with various team members roles for them in the dissemination of information. For example, one of his colleagues with great handwriting updated the new wall on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
TIP: make communications interesting (and reduce PM overwhelm) by changing them at different stages of the project. The News Wall may be more useful during testing that during development, the bi-monthly review may work better in the early stages of the project when things are moving more slowly and more groundwork is underway.
PMI shares an interesting statistic that is based on research by Andy Crowe that says that project managers spend more than 90% of their time communicating. My own research has shown that 80% of people related to projects - project managers and non-project managers alike - expect us to provide context and purpose and to make sure everyone knows who is on point (90%). When asked what the best thing about a project manager is, many people say that they provide a single point of contact and that they ensure constant and consistent communication. Our interaction with stakeholders is critical to ensuring that project outcomes are predictable, consistent and result in the benefits expected by the consumer. Realized benefit is what projects are about – even more than the triple constraint, because sponsors may live with cost and time overruns if the bang for the buck is high enough. An on time on budget project that does not deliver the expected ROI is a failure.
A relationship is not static and nor is the relationship we have with our stakeholders. The individuals may change, their level of interest in the project may wax and wane. I had a stakeholder who said his only interest was knowing when the project was done. He told me the only communication he wanted was a call to say, “the project has been completed and the product is ready for use.”
A common theme I hear with project managers is that all this communication is very time-consuming. In my experience, the time spent to find out how individual stakeholders process information is the best investment. Often you can reduce the number of touchpoints if you can make each touchpoint really count.
TIP: Consider at least these five elements as you design your stakeholder management plan and the communication plan to go with it:
And finally, the check in. Creating a regular check-in to make sure the communication is working helps keep the stakeholders engaged and the project on track.
 Crowe, Andy. Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not. Velociteach, 2016.
I am, by nature, a curious person. A few years ago, after 25 years of managing projects and programs, I was curious about whether I, as a project manager, expected the same thing of myself as others expected of me. Was I meeting expectations?
After some interesting conversations with stakeholders and team members, with answers on a spectrum of yes, maybe, not always, my curiosity went beyond that.
I wanted to know what project managers (PMs) expect their role to be, and what people who have project managers (NPMs) expect their role to be.
Based on anecdotal evidence collected over my career as a PM, I had three theories:
To find out whether my anecdotal evidence was true, I set up a survey. More than 250 people took it – half project managers and half non-project managers. The survey was 18 questions that ranged from industry (40 industries), and location (12 countries), to the percentage of projects using project managers (more than 50%) in the organization to role expectations. The full results of the survey will be available in a few weeks, but here are some thought-provoking initial findings.
Project managers matter
Happily, both groups agreed that having a project manager is essential to the success of a project. 86% of NPMs agreed with this statement as do 90% of PMs.
Both groups agreed that project managers provide context and purpose. The gap here is wider, with 71% of non-project managers and 88% of project managers agreeing with this statement, but the majority of both groups agree.
To a similar extent, we agree that project managers make things happen with 74% of non-project managers and 90% of project managers agreeing with that statement.
Both groups agree that project managers provide a useful buffer between the project team and management and they are not there just to report to management. 65% of NPMs and 87% of project managers agree about the role as a buffer with 23% of NPMs and only 10% of PMs believing that management reporting is their only role.
We also generally agree that project managers keep people on task and make sure everyone knows who is on point for project tasks.
These results seem like a good start for those of us who want to expand this profession! Is there a dark side of this survey?
The effectiveness devil is in the project manager details!
Something to note is the degree to which the two groups agreed – although their answers were generally aligned, they did not always answer with the same intensity! Although we are in general agreement that PMs are essential, only 50% of NPMs felt strongly that this is the case 74% of PMs do!
30% of NPMs felt strongly that PMs make things happen but double that number of PMs felt strongly that making things happen is part of their impact. (59.8% of PMs).
The elephant in the room - micromanagement
We have all heard project managers referred to as micromanagers or characterized as people with clipboards. Two statements were put to the two groups – Project managers slow down development and delivery by having too many meetings and project managers are too ttask-orientedto be helpful.
The good news is that around 60% of people in each group disagree with these statements. What is interesting though is that 30% of NPMs and a surprising 21% (1 in 5) of PMs(!) believe that we are too task oriented to be helpful.
29% of NPMs and more than 26% of PMs agree that Project managers slow down the development and delivery by having too many meetings.
What does all this tell us? Let’s start by reviewing the results against my theories.
Survey Result: Surprisingly this is not the case, good bad or indifferent, the perspective of the PM and NPM is remarkably aligned. This is promising as the profession matures.
Survey Result: While this point of view is not as pervasive as I expected, it is somewhat true, and most interesting to me, over 1 in 5 PMs believe this themselves!
Survey Result: Happily, this theory was contradicted by my survey results! Of course, we cannot rule out that self-selection means that NPMs willing to answer the survey were pre-disposed to believe in the role. Those that don’t believe in the role may not be motivated to answer a survey! But, that caveat aside, things are encouraging.
There are two areas for us to focus on.
The first area is the gap between our perception and the perception of our non-project manager colleagues. Even where we agree in general, there are big gaps when we dig deeper.
The second area of focus is to lift ourselves out of the details and keep our eye on the big picture. I believe that a lot of this relies on us changing our focus from process – agile vs waterfall, charts, KPIs and planning tools – to people, the human factors that impact projects.
Creativity is intelligence having fun
~ Albert Einstein
It was a Friday night. I was just settling down for a movie when I received a panicked call. “Nothing is working” the voice said. “We are completely stuck. We cannot reach anyone to make a priority call. There is so much work planned this weekend. We have everyone coming in tonight and the rest of the weekend – twenty two people. Every downstream data consumer needs something. We have deadlines. It is not going anywhere.”
Clearly stress levels were high, frustration levels even higher.
Fortunately I did not have a job in an ER or an OR, or anywhere where lives are on the line. I was working in Information Technology, on a large program building new software, so I had the luxury of any decision being “safe”. Only timelines were on the line. Nevertheless, there was much stress and anxiety in the mix, and it was hard to make sense of the issues. After a few minutes we were able to make a tactical decision on how to move on. We agreed to get “the real experts” (about eight people) on a call the next morning to discuss a more comprehensive plan. I set about lining up the right people for a 10am call.
On Saturday, everyone showed up as requested. They are a good team – dedicated and professional. They had been primed with the necessary information and the call started. First we went through a few minutes of “how did we get here?’ analysis. Sometimes the discussion veered close to “how could you have done that?” as frustration flared again.
After a few minutes I brought them back to the task at hand – getting from where we were to where we needed to be.
The team members started throwing out ideas. Every suggestion made was countered with “that doesn’t work because then we cannot do…..” The next suggestion would suffer the same fate. No set of moves was good enough. Nothing was going to work.
About ten minutes in, I said “Everyone is doing their best, and clearly we cannot do everything that was planned. Something has to give. I am happy to communicate that to management. Don’t worry about that. We can only do what we can do.”
I felt rather than heard the collective sigh over the phone. Voices lowered. The pace of the discussion slowed. Comments were more thoughtful. Each suggestion was evaluated and elaborated as people partnered to move things forward. The focus became what was right with each suggestion rather than what was wrong. It was a total transformation.
In ten more minutes we had agreed the order of the activities. We had adjusted the original plan only minimally. There was a virtual high five as everyone on the phone agreed this was a solid plan and the best one possible. The end result of this problem solving session? Every downstream consumer would get what they needed from the team at the time they needed it.
We took the stress out of the equation and then we had fun working together to come up with a solution. Communicating potentially bad news – “we cannot do what we said we would do” or “you cannot have what you need” was a real worry. How would management react? Would the team be blamed or punished in some way?
As soon as the specter of having to face questions and challenges was no longer in front of this team of capable, experienced, dedicated technical staff, they were free to play to their substantial strengths, and the creative juices were able to flow. The focus was no longer on what we would not have; it was on what we could accomplish. It was not on the goal but the journey – what steps would we take? Who would take on which task? And the goal materialized as we worked.
The team identified and evaluated about four different scenarios, and adjusted and discussed them until the best plan was hatched. It was actually simple, elegant even. It was a step by step plan that got us from where we were to where we needed to be, unfettered by the constraints of delivering a potentially unpalatable message to management.
Unexpectedly we got from impossible to possible, from feeling frustrated and anxious to feeling accomplished and optimistic. The team felt good. The whole process had taken 25 minutes.
And the best moment of all? It was when one of the team on the line said, “And this is not on you. This is a collective decision and we all believe it is the best decision. We have your back.” That alleviated my stress too and liberated me to write this blog!