Whether it is in one of LinkedIn's project management discussion groups or in PMI's Projectmanagement.com community, one of the more frequent requests made by members is for mentoring. Sometimes the mentee has done a good job of articulating their needs which will increase their odds of finding a suitable mentor but this is the exception, not the rule.
Project management mentors are usually senior practitioners who tend to be quite busy, hence providing limited information almost guarantees that the request won't be fulfilled in a timely fashion.
So before you post a request for a mentor, take the time to answer these five questions:
What are my objectives for the mentoring relationship?
This is a good case of where the S.M.A.R.T. test for objectives should be used - are they specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound?
This question will help you answer the next one.
Is the mentoring relationship I'm seeking short or long term?
This will help prospective mentors decide whether they are willing to commit for a longer period of time and will serve as a good sanity check on the achievability of your objectives.
The answers to these two questions might help you answer the next question.
Will I be better served with a mentor whom I can meet in person?
Depending on your objectives, you might find that geographic or temporal distance will significantly reduce the mentor's ability to help you succeed such as intimate knowledge of the local business environment. Thankfully many PMI chapters have well established mentoring programs which might help you to connect with a local practitioner.
How much effort will my mentor need to commit to help me achieve my objectives?
You might think that you have found the perfect practitioner from a personality and experience perspective but if they are too busy to effectively support you, you may need to connect with someone that has more time but less experience or you might need to adjust your expectations of the mentor's time commitment.
Finally, while many mentors provide their services on a voluntary basis, others might treat it as billable work.
Am I willing to pay for mentoring support, and if so, what is my budget?
If you don't know what you want to get out of a mentoring relationship, no mentor can help you achieve your goals.
I've almost finished reading "Gigs, Hustles & Temps" by Jason Foster which is about precarious work and the negative impacts it creates on individuals, their families and society in general. While we might think of precarious work as something limited to Uber drivers, home cleaners and other gig workers, such work covers multiple industries spanning both public and private sector employment.
The author does a great job of highlighting the personal impacts of precarity such as reduced wages, reduced leverage with employers and delay or deferment of capital purchases, but the chapter on the economic impacts of precarious work resonated with me as it covers the productivity impacts when a large proportion of a company's work force is experiencing precarity.
The author identifies three reasons for this:
The author also writes about the link between precarity and reduced physical and psychological safety as employers are less inclined to invest in exceeding health & safety standards and workers are more like to experience high levels of ongoing stress.
But the kicker for me is this quote from the International Labour Organization of the United Nations (ILO): "The use of temporary workers can over time erode the motivation that workers have to contribute to the organization, and can lower the level of ability available in the organization to innovate or in other ways contribute to firm performance."
This made me think about the companies I've worked with over the years that had tried to increase their delivery agility and the relative differences in success between those which had few precarious workers and those which had much more.
While I wouldn't consider it the sole cause, it is safe to say that those companies which had a higher percentage of workers in precarious positions were more likely to struggle with the transition, especially the organizational commitment to ongoing continuous improvement.
Precarity reduces safety, and without safety, nothing else matters.
During a presentation I delivered today to members of the PMI Nova Scotia chapter on cultivating psychological safety, one of the attendees asked how would she be able to assess whether the team she was going to join was safe prior to joining.
This is a great question because whenever we move to a new company or even a different division in a sufficiently large company, our access to verifiable information is quite limited. For obvious reasons, the leadership of our new team will usually not want to provide evidence of a poor team culture and unless we have trusted connections within the team itself or have access to someone who has recently left the team, it can be difficult to feel confident that we aren't jumping into a snake pit.
It is certainly worth asking your potential new manager questions such as:
But, I'd also recommend asking the manager to speak one-on-one with a few team members.
If they resist that request, walk away.
But let's say they are open to it.
Here are a few questions to consider asking when you meet with each team member:
While it is quite feasible that one or more of the team members you speak with might be under the manager's thrall, active listening while you ask these probing questions might reveal something different than what the person is saying.
Joining a new organization is fraught with risks but with a little bit of due diligence you can reduce the odds of snake bite!
I read a number of project leadership books each year but usually I find only one or two which really make an impact. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner's book "How Big Things Get Done" is one of the latter.
I have never had the opportunity to lead a megaproject (the term is typically used for those with a budget in excess of $1 billion), but over the last fifteen years I have read a number of the articles published by Prof. Flyvbjerg on the subject and always learned lessons which were applicable to the projects I was involved with.
In the book, the authors provide many case studies supporting eleven heuristics derived from Prof. Flyvbjerg's decades of research into large, complex projects. While the term "heuristic" is apt as each is a useful mental shortcut, they could also be used as principles.
Given that twenty-two out of the twenty-three categories of the projects evaluated are physical projects (e.g. construction, mining, aerospace), it is tempting to assume that these heuristics are only relevant to projects delivered with a predictive approach.
That would be an invalid assumption as out of the eleven heuristics, I found that most are equally applicable to adaptive delivery. Here are just a few which fit well.
Hire a masterbuilder: we want to have someone with significant domain experience and a proven track record of success leading the work. Whether we are looking to fill the role of a project manager, an agile lead (e.g. Scrum Master) or a product owner, relevant experience and knowledge are critical.
Get your team right: The first value statement in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools". And as Prof. Flyvbjerg states, the main job of the masterbuilder is to pick the right team members to get the work done.
Ask "Why?": While the scope of a project is expected to emerge over its life when using an adaptive delivery approach, it can be a fatal mistake to not spend sufficient time upfront identifying an expected end vision. This North Star enables the team to challenge work items which will not achieve the desired outcomes and reduces the likelihood of an adaptive delivery approach being a random walk to nowhere.
Build with Lego: The idea of creating large systems from smaller components is a natural fit with the incremental nature of adaptive delivery. When a team takes a large work item and figures out a way to slice it into smaller pieces which still individually deliver value they are applying this heuristic.
Think slow, act fast: On the surface, this heuristic sounds like an invitation for big, heavy, upfront paper-based planning which agilists eschew. This is not what Prof. Flyvbjerg is advocating. What he is recommending is to reduce the cost of trial and error by taking the time to identify key areas of uncertainty which could impact successful delivery and to learn and find ways to address them effectively as early as possible in the project's life cycle. The examples which are provided about how Pixar plans its films or how Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao both demonstrate early de-risking which is a core attribute of adaptive delivery.
Say no and walk away: Prof. Flyvbjerg highlights the importance of focus when delivering complex projects. If an action does not contribute to achieving the project's outcomes, skip it. This aligns well with the tenth principle of the Manifesto: "Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential."
While I have not covered all of the heuristics and their adaptive delivery applicability in this article, I hope that I have encouraged all of you to read this book, regardless of the domain or the approach used to deliver your projects.
I've just finished reading The Revenge of Analog and The Future is Analog by David Sax. In both of these books, he provides compelling arguments supported by a number of case studies taken from different domains to show that while some might envision the future as becoming more and more digital, we will continue to cherish and yearn for analog experiences. The latter of the two books was written during the COVID-19 pandemic where most of us underwent a rapid acceleration into a digital future and in most cases, didn't like what we experienced.
So what does this have to do with project management, you ask?
Ever since ChatGPT hit mainstream consciousness in November 2022, a frequent topic of discussion in most project management online communities has been what progressive improvements in A.I. capabilities will mean for the profession.
As with any other disruptive change, there are some practitioners who go all in on the future for A.I. technologies whereas others marginalize their potential.
My opinion hasn't changed.
So long as the scope of projects is delivered by human beings, I find it unlikely that we will abdicate leadership responsibilities to a machine. As unique endeavors, projects require team members to be creative, innovative and able to react in a timely manner to surprises. I don't see automation being able to inspire the level of engagement and follow through required to deliver even moderately complex projects.
What I do expect is that A.I. advances will provide much richer decision support than is currently possible. Whereas there are specific use cases for such technology today such as estimation and forecasting within specific industries, I feel the scope of such support will increase as A.I. tools are able to proactively harvest relevant data sets, process those in real time, and provide probability-based forecasts on the relative merits of different options.
I also am confident that A.I. will be able to substantially (if not fully) eliminate rote, administrative work from the role. As the tools learn how a given project manager works, the quality of auto-generated reports and responses will improve. Similarly, A.I. will help to keep teams safe by providing guidance, evidence gathering and documentation capabilities for compliance and governance purposes.
And I view this as a good thing as it means project managers will find themselves with much more time to focus on analog activities such as engaging effectively with their key stakeholders, building high performing teams, and keeping their eyes on the road ahead rather than spending half or more of their time looking in the rear view mirror.
And that will make the profession that much more rewarding to its practitioners.