Project Management


Breaking barriers and building bridges to better manage projects and lead teams.

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The ESG Imperative

Straight Talk—And Active Listening

Just Win, Baby

On the Frontlines, with Purpose

Beware Reverse Delegation

The ESG Imperative

Categories: social good

From defining processes to developing people skills, organizations are taking steps to make environmental, social and governance strategy a reality.

From climate change to complex social justice issues, the pressure is on organizations to get serious about their impact on local and global communities — and how they drive meaningful change. But many companies are struggling to develop the practices and people skills needed to bring their environmental, social and governance (ESG) visions into reality.

A new special report from PMI — "The ESG Imperative: Turning Words Into Action” —takes the pulse of the ESG movement in 2022, highlighting relevant research, key regulatory drivers and hands-on insights from ESG project leaders who are working to turn words into action and intent into impact. 

It is clear that many organizations are still reckoning with gaps and indecision in their ESG efforts. For instance, 70% of respondents to a Deloitte survey this year have yet to determine how climate change will impact their company’s operations, supply chain and customers.

However, some organizations are overcoming challenges to launch ambitious ESG projects — and deliver results such as improving diversity on their boards, limiting the carbon footprint of supply chains, and removing toxic waste from the community water supply. For these ESG leaders, good practices include:

  • Audits and assessments to identify ESG gaps and opportunities.
  • Integrating process and documentation to keep ESG values and goals “front of mind” for project teams and the entire organization.
  • Alignment of ESG frameworks with clear performance metrics that are both internally and externally driven.
  • “Managing up” to ensure sponsors and executives are actively engaged.
  • Feedback loops and dedicated liaisons to build connections with communities impacted by projects.

For organizations that find ESG success, the benefits go beyond the bottom line. They are realizing a deeper return on investment (ROI) that is intrinsically linked to their reputation with consumers, relationships with partners, and ability to recruit and retain talented people. Innovation and inspired teamwork are also positive, tangible byproducts of ESG efforts.

Indeed, empowering project professionals with ESG knowledge and experience — and upskilling existing talent — is a top priority for ESG-driven companies. Must-have power skills include creative problem-solving, critical thinking with empathy, and the ability to influence all levels of stakeholders.

Like never before, a strong commitment to ESG isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do, the report concludes. By establishing core values, diving into data to track progress and enabling project leaders to become changemakers, companies can begin to turn intent into action and deliver projects that make the world a better place. 

Check out the full report: "The ESG Imperative: Turning Words Into Action

Posted on: August 22, 2022 06:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Straight Talk—And Active Listening

PMI has identified “power skills” as one of the three sides of the “Talent Triangle” — a framework that helps project leaders navigate the changing world of project management. These power skills include collaborative leadership, communication and empathy, which are explored in Straight Talk: Influence Skills for Collaboration and Commitment, a new book by Rick Brandon. Brandon, founder of training firm Brandon Partners, has devoted 30-plus years to delivering leadership and professional development workshops on what he calls “influence skills.”

I recently connected with Brandon to learn more about his thoughts on several core concepts in his book, including active listening, making connections remotely and practicing constructive honesty.

COVID and the seismic shift to virtual work has made collaboration more challenging. Why do leaders with strong interpersonal skills have an advantage in this new work reality? Strong interpersonal skills give leaders a competitive advantage by curbing time drains, costly mistakes, and alienated relationships due to misunderstanding. Assertive speaking and empathic listening create commitment rather than mere compliance when forging agreements on project action steps. New managers are promoted based on their own results, but now must get results through other people–– often their friends. They’re lost without skills for gaining commitments, giving feedback, and being a sounding board for others who are wrestling problems.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) research by Daniel Goleman revealed EQ is more than twice as important to performance and advancement as intelligence and technical expertise combined. Gallup found that only 30 percent of workers are fully engaged, and a top reason given is “my manager.” Retention requires communication, not money or task issues. Wave goodbye to innovation without an open and honest free flow of ideas where suggestions aren’t stifled.

Finally, interpersonal skills that build connection can buffer remote work’s separation, social isolation, disconnection, personalization and loneliness. Harmonious, stress-free relationships foster trust, team spirit, and unity that are precursors to performance quality and quantity.

Why is active listening important for project leaders and team members? Listening skills aren’t soft “charm school” skills only applicable in your personal life, rather they are critical project performance skills. Project leaders must harness the cooperation and contribution of all team members. Active listening builds belonging, helps explore project needs and specs, shows receptivity to ideas and feedback, conveys positive regard, explores problems before providing input, and defuses emotions during disagreements. In meetings, paraphrasing draws out views, urges others to share their opinions, distills points of agreement or differences, and summarizes the status of decisions and agreed-upon next steps.

Active listening also helps team members by ensuring understanding of instructions before taking action, improving concentration, and fostering retention of a complex explanation. Paraphrasing helps everyone clarify and verify understanding, gather needed data, explore and empathize with a person’s problem when being a sounding board for a troubled teammate, stay calm before arguing, tactfully disagree or challenge, and defuse de-escalate volatile emotions during a conflict

Can you share some tips for how to improve one’s listening? First, focus on the environment—computer closed, cell on silent. Then focus on your mind and body—decide to listen, lean forward, make eye contact, nod your head. Explore with acknowledgments, open-ended questions and encouragement (e.g., “Tell me more…”). Empathize by validating and paraphrasing thoughts and feelings. Real listening isn’t merely silently hearing the other person attentively. It demands checking your understanding by paraphrasing in your own words.

How can people on dispersed teams feel more connected? Interpersonal skills by phone, text, and video can ease the pain of the remote work world’s separation and create connection. Opt for phone and video meetings (Zoom, etc.) where at least you experience visual and vocal cues absent from text or email. Studies show emotional impact of messages comes 7% from a message’s words, 38% from tone, and 55% from body language (facial expression, eyes, etc.). In video meetings, some tips for connection include:

  • Start a Google docs for self-introductions including bio, photo, and fun personal facts.              
  • Urge early arriving and reaching out to connect with others via chat.
  • Request cameras being on to feel more together.           
  • Replace excessive one-way information-sharing with use of collaboration tools like chat room, breakout groups, polling, brainstorming on the white board, etc.
  • End by debriefing how the team did with its group process and communication.                             
  • Organize virtual lunch gatherings with an activity, and team-building game time using various online game apps.

What are some keys to being constructively candid? You frame this as honesty vs. idiocy—can you elaborate? People often put honesty on a pedestal, and justify a hurtful, bruising statement saying, “I’m just saying…” or “Just being honest!” There is a better way, what I call “Right Stuff” guidelines for appropriate honesty.

—The Right Way. being firm rather than weak or harsh.

—The Right Time. Is the person ready to hear you? Ask permission to give feedback. Be sensitive to timing. What else was going on in the person’s life? Was there time to discuss the issues?

—The Right Place. Did you assert in a private setting to minimize distractions, reduce awkwardness, and avoid humiliation? Or was it in a group where the receiver became more defensive and resistant?

—The Right Reasons. Consider whether your honesty was based on fair and appropriate reasons to:

  • help or develop the other
  • make input to inform a decision
  • strengthen the organization
  • improve the relationship
  • forge greater accountability
  • set a positive tone or motivate

Or did you speak up for flawed reasons to:

  • power trip
  • hurt the other
  • prove how smart or right you are
  • hear yourself talk
  • get even
  • gripe and complain

—The Right Risk Level. If you’re overly trusting of everyone and always say everything on your mind without regard to power and politics, you’ll regret it. Consider the ego issues and potential risk level involved. Are you getting yourself into hot water? Is the receiver an overly political player who will exact revenge?

You also contrast fault finding and strength finding. Can you share an example of how each approach might play out on a project, and why it makes a difference? Being a “fault finder” versus a motivating “strengths finder” shows up as:

• During brainstorming, finding fault before the idea’s even fully expressed.

• Giving feedback on a presentation or report only highlighting what went wrong with “constructive criticism.”

• Jumping all over a person’s viewpoint before aligning with and absorbing it (e.g., “That’ll never work because risk management will veto it!”).

Instead, being a “strengths finder” is exemplified by:

• Regular doses of unexpected positive recognition and appreciation messages.

• Handling a mistake by exploring positive learnings for the future and by appreciating the person’s honesty in bringing the issue to the leader’s attention.

• Before expressing concerns about someone’s suggestion, first generously stating what you like about the idea–– its merits–– even if overall you don’t support it.

Thanks for sharing these insights, Rick!

Posted on: May 18, 2022 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Just Win, Baby

Categories: agility, leadership

The best project managers are like the best coaches.

As a project manager, have you ever felt that you had to overcome a reputation that preceded you? Not your personal reputation, but rather the reputation—more like a stereotype—of that title of yours?

Clutching a schedule and budget, the “textbook” project manager is laser focused on the process, while other people are doing the “real” work. The project manager monitors and measures progress with cold precision at arm's length. Meanwhile, the team is making it all happen, and other folks oversee the strategic vision and the creative stuff.

But that rep is a bad rap. It's akin to saying coaches don't matter in team sports, or, worse, "get in the way.”

Yes, the players do the scoring, the front office makes the high-level moves. But someone needs to watch the game unfold, substituting at key moments, working with available resources, knowing each team member’s skills and weaknesses, adjusting to on-the-field developments — all with the common goal of helping the team win.

Now, it’s true that some project managers feed the perception that they're control freaks who hinder creativity and improvisation. Gripping the project plan like the Holy Grail, they react to the unexpected as if it were a sworn enemy instead of an opportunity to redefine the plan, adapt, and improve the outcome. They resist negative news instead of reshaping it.

But the best project managers shatter the stereotype. Documents and spreadsheets are part of the job, of course; but they succeed because they understand that projects are fundamentally uncertain, and the best way to manage them is to expect the unexpected and embrace it. These project managers look change straight in the eyes. After all, no project is worth doing without a potential benefit, and no benefit or reward comes without some risk.

Projects are many things. They involve many people with different talents. They require collaboration and problem-solving. They have budgets and deadlines. And they all do better with a leader — a “coach” — who can watch the clock, know the score and, most important, draw up a new play when circumstances require it.

Posted on: February 28, 2022 03:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

On the Frontlines, with Purpose

Categories: culture, leadership

Whether you’re leading a project or contributing to one, you are on the frontlines of your organization’s success. Do it with purpose, transparency and empathy.

“Ninety percent of employees in any organization work on the frontlines. That’s where companies interact with customers, solve the most problems, establish norms, and cultivate culture,” says Eric Strafel, author of The Frontline CEO. “Yet most organizations today cling to old-fashioned systems that keep senior leaders and frontline workers apart.”

That’s not an encouraging observation, but it sounds like a chasm that project leaders are well-positioned to bridge. After all, project managers are expected to understand their organization’s strategic goals and bring that vision to their project teams—the frontlines of getting things done.

From stakeholder engagement and customer requirements, to reporting and managing change, project leaders are continuously connecting their team members to the higher purpose and value of their work. They play an integral role in creating a can-do culture of collaboration and problem-solving. They inspire and stay on course—or adjust when needed. They connect the dots. Do you?

In his book, Strafel presents strategies that can help empower frontline workers to make decisions and solve problems on their own—again, something project managers should already be doing. “Frontline leadership pulls employees into the decision-making process, so that solutions are sought, found and acted upon in the area that matters most—where the work gets done,” he says.

Strafel presents a roadmap for implementing frontline leadership in his book. Here are three recommendations (or reminders) that will make you a better a project leader:

   > Know Your Purpose and Live It. Without purpose, project teams and individuals can veer off in different directions, impacting productivity, and undermining the goals of the organization and customer. That’s why it is so critical that project leaders keep the purpose of the project work front and center—from kickoff to closeout, and every interaction in between. This laser focus will not only help to ensure that everyone is on the same page, but it can serve as inspiration, especially when the going gets tough.

   > Practice Radical Transparency. Radical transparency requires a dramatic shift from top-down leadership style which assumes that only senior management can be trusted with vital information and the ability to make decisions. Not only does this impede decision-making, but it causes an “us-versus-them” mentality. Radical transparency, on the other hand, builds trust. Project leaders foster transparency when they behave authentically, discuss what is really going on, solicit feedback, and take appropriate action. This transparency should extend beyond the organization, guiding the way you work with customers and stakeholders as well. 

   > Show that You Care. Strafel urges leaders to stop valuing performance over people. “Get to know [them], learn how they want to build their careers, what they care about, and then help them move toward their goals,” he advises. He also notes that when it comes to caring, many leaders talk about the value of diversity, seeing it as a source of strength. Yet they fail when it comes to inclusion. Part of caring is making sure that everyone, no matter who they are, feels welcome within the project team.

Purpose. Transparency. Empathy. Three powerful pillars to lead by.

You know, we’ve all been schooled about the triple constraint—the project management triangle of scope, time and cost. But there should be no constraint when it comes to leading your project teams with a sense of purpose, radical transparency and genuine empathy.

Honor that leadership triangle on the frontlines and you’ll be circling success more often than not.

Posted on: October 26, 2021 06:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Beware Reverse Delegation

Decision-making is an important part of what project leaders do. But that doesn’t mean they should make all the decisions.

You have talented people on your project team. Right? They have the technical skills and knowledge needed to execute the plan, to deliver value, to make stakeholders happy. But the other day, a couple members of the team asked you if they should go with technical option A or B. What do you do? In many cases, the best answer is to choose neither.

That’s because there are times when you should not decide, specifically in areas of expertise where the decision is better delegated. By making the decision in these situations, you are practicing "reverse delegation," and it can cause problems down the road.

When you make a decision that someone else has the expertise or experience to make, you are diminishing their ownership of the solution—and their investment in the entire project, for that matter. Worse, you’re shutting down an opportunity to build confidence in your team members that will help when other issues need to be faced in the future.

It's easy to fall into the reverse delegation trap, though—especially if you came up from a technical background. If you’ve become a project leader after years of working on technical issues, you might want to continue to oversee those decisions on your team. But remember, those technical folks on your team are like you once were, and they probably have more current knowledge about certain aspects of the project than you do.

So, make a conscious decision to delegate more decisions.

First, recognize that team members have a natural inclination to consult you. They know the project manager is the one person putting their reputation on the line for the project, and they want to know what you think. But remind team members of their role and value on the project.

Of course, it is still your responsibility as a project leader to examine whether there is an underlying problem that might hinder your team’s ability to make decisions. Ask yourself these questions and correct accordingly:

1. Do team members understand stakeholder values and project priorities? Set the stage early for good decisions by communicating clearly about the project charter, scope and stakeholder expectations—and how they relate to the decision criteria of cost, schedule and quality.

2. Do team members feel empowered to make decisions? Consider whether they are comfortable with and confident in their position. Some people want to give decisions back to the project manager so that they are free of the consequences.

And there will always be cases when you should still be the decider.

If the team can't agree, you need to break the deadlock so the project can proceed. Does one approach carry more risk than another, for example? But do this as infrequently as possible because ultimately it takes away some of the empowerment you had hoped to use to your project’s advantage.

You’ve been on teams, so you already know from experience that many, if not most, decisions are best made closest to where the actual work is being done. Now’s your turn as a leader to make sure that happens on your projects.

Posted on: August 10, 2021 02:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)