Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

Personal development action planning starts with the "What?" and "Why?" before the "How?"

I, for one, welcome our new PM AI overlords

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

What are some of the underlying causes of ineffective project risk management?

Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

I've written about many drivers of individual motivation. Receiving regular recognition (Early Saturday morning alliteration!), effective empowerment giving us autonomy over our work, having opportunities to improve our skills, belonging to a team where psychological safety is valued and feeling that our inner purpose is linked to the outer purpose for our projects are all important.

But the missing component from the above ingredients list is seeing frequent (ideally daily) evidence of the progress we are making through our work efforts.

In his last Pinkcast, Daniel Pink spoke about the perceived importance of demonstrable progress and referenced Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer's book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

So what does this imply for project managers?

If your approach is to deliver a few, infrequent "big bang" changes rather than encouraging early and regular delivery of value, this may not support the progress principle. This is less of a concern with those projects involving tangible, visible outcomes. An engineering and construction team might be building a theatre so stakeholder value is only realized once the theatre has been fully built and turned over to its owners. Although this may not happen for months, at the end of each day on the job site the team members are able to see visible signs of the progress they've made. I believe that this is one of the motivators for the volunteers who will work at disaster sites clearing debris every day as they are able to incrementally see order returned to chaos.

But on those projects which will have intangible outcomes, this gets trickier. Assuming the context of these projects would support adaptive lifecycles, adopting such approaches should increase the likelihood of all team members seeing progress. A batched approach to processing work items implies that one skill set is highly engaged whereas others upstream or downstream are waiting. With a flow-based teaming approach, all team members should see visible evidence of the work they've completed. Sprint reviews and other similar ceremonies will provide structured product feedback and recognition from external stakeholders, but serve as motivational gravy rather than the main course.

Seeing is believing, but seeing is also motivating!

 

Posted on: October 13, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Personal development action planning starts with the "What?" and "Why?" before the "How?"

Categories: Personal Development

How many times have you been on a project where your customer or some other key stakeholder has prematurely tried to jump to a solution without having fully articulated their needs and wants? This behavior gives rise to many risks including wasted effort, the perceived loss of autonomy for delivery team members, and a loss of optionality.

So why should we consider our personal development to be any different?

Translating the vision for where we see ourselves in the future into reality meets the PMBOK® Guide's definition of a project in that is a unique endeavor (there is only one "you") and will definitely be temporary (until someone invents immortality).

Through online discussion groups and in the in-person interactions I've had with fellow practitioners, two of the more common questions I am asked are:

  • "I've just attained credential or certification X - what should I do next?"
  • "Should I pursue credential X or credential Y?"

A reasonable assumption is that I'm asked these questions because I do list a number of certifications after my name in my professional written communications.

In such situations, I'm often tempted to channel my internal Twisted Sister (I was heavily influenced by 80's hair bands) and yell "What Do You Want To Do With Your Life!". Before I can attempt to help the requestor, I need to understand what they are aspiring to be and why that's important to them.

The same is true for those who aspire to a higher titled role within their companies. Is that a means to an end (and if so, the only means) or is it the end unto itself.

As with negotiations, let's seek to understand interests before jumping to positions.

Posted on: October 06, 2019 03:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

I, for one, welcome our new PM AI overlords

A frequently asked question in the main ProjectManagement.com community discussion group is about the perceived impacts of machine learning on project delivery.

Some contributors worry that sufficient advances in AI will render the role of a project manager obsolete whereas others remain bullish about the prospects for the profession.

A recent Harvard Business Review article by Stephen M. Kosslyn titled "Are You Developing Skills That Won’t Be Automated?" would support a positive outlook on this topic. In the article, the author asserts that roles in which emotion and context play a strong influence will still need to be performed by human beings. We have enough challenges with human leaders struggling to inspire team members or effectively align stakeholders to expect that machines will have an easier time doing so.

I'm expecting that enhancements in current machine learning technology will free us from rote administrative activities which even the most senior project manager finds themselves having to perform from time to time. While such advances might reduce a full-time requirement for project administrators on large, complex projects, it might enable such roles to support a larger number of projects at the same time.

What might projec managers do with all of this extra time?

Being assigned to more projects concurrently is not the answer! If we believe that project management is a strategic role then we should be encouraging greater focus, not less.

Freed up capacity could be better utilized on frequently neglected practice areas such as stakeholder engagement, risk management and knowledge creation. Envision the potential benefits to your projects if you had even 10% more time to devote to such practices.

We could also invest more in our own personal development or giving back to the profession or the community.

Is it possible that at some point in the future, AI will have the ability to independently manage a project staffed with humans?

This seems realistic if we agree with Gene Roddenberry's vision of intelligent sentient machines such as Commander Data, but I'm equally optimistic that the next one or two generations of project managers will have little to fear so long as they continue to invest in developing their soft skills.

Posted on: September 29, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

Kim Scott's bestseller is normally read as a guide for managers but it provides equal value to the members of self-organized teams. While she details a number of useful models within the book, her main model which positions a culture of radical candor relative to others can provide a good basis for team improvement. The culture of the organization in which a team is formed will often dictate the default starting quadrant for interpersonal behavior.

In those companies where higher value is placed on playing nice rather than being effective or in those where conflict suppression is preferred to confrontation, team members may demonstrate behaviors consistent with Ruinous Empathy™. If a particular team member is constantly tardy for daily standups, rather than tackling the issue directly, other team members will internally stew but silently put up with it. Over time this will damage their relationships with that team member and will impact the synergy of the team.

Where the atmosphere of a company resembles a shark tank, Obnoxious Aggression™ might be the starting point. When that same team member shows up late once for a daily standup, they will be so thoroughly chewed out by one or more team members for having wasted time that the offender would be likely to set multiple redundant alarms to avoid ever being put through that particular wringer again! Feedback is provided in a timely manner when someone violates a team norm or isn't pulling their weight, but the method in which the message is delivered bruises egos and, over time, results in a culture of docile submission and low psychological safety.

If Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones is considered a role model, then teams might start by exhibiting Manipulative Insincerity™. The team member who shows up late to standups will eventually receive feedback but only indirectly as a result of overhearing grumbling from other team members around the water cooler or through unnecessary escalation to his or her functional manager. Such passive-aggressive behavior not only delays the time for receiving and acting on feedback but it also erodes trust and reduces collaboration within the team.

One approach to address such dysfunctional behavior is to use Kim's model during a retrospective. Team members could brainstorm specific actions they witnessed (or themselves performed) which fell into one of the above three quadrants as well as recognizing other actions which demonstrated radical candor. This could be used to help the team enhance their working agreements or to identify specific interpersonal improvements. The challenge is that the team members need to be self-aware and willing to suspend their default behavior patterns in their participation. A skilled agile lead may be needed to facilitate such an event.

Psychological safety is critical within high performing teams. Knowing that your peers have your back gives you the confidence to experiment, to express vulnerabilities, and to ask for help when you need it. But another critical ingredient for building a good team is to cultivate a culture of radical candor.

Posted on: September 22, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

What are some of the underlying causes of ineffective project risk management?

Since I first started to learn about project management, risk management has always fascinated me.

That characteristic of uniqueness which separates operations from project work introduces uncertainties which, in turn, generate risks. Most mega-project case studies give credit to an effective risk management approach as a key contributor towards their success. But in spite of this, risk management continues to be one of the weakest practiced knowledge areas in the PMBOK.

If eternal optimism is the prevailing mindset within a company, it can be difficult for risk owners to envision things not going according to plan. What has always intrigued me is how the same leadership teams which can be moderately effective at implementing operations or business risk capabilities will be so much weaker when it comes to project risk management.  A risk averse culture will take a long time to change for an overall organization, but a project manager should be able to influence it within the ecosystem of their projects.

Unhealthy levels of multitasking by project teams and stakeholders result in those practices perceived as unnecessary being jettisoned or being given lip service only. If a team barely has time to deliver the scope of their project, how can they or equally busy risk owners be expected to expend any real efforts on considering or responding to potentialities which may never be realized? And, if we combine this limited availability with "one size fits all" approaches to project risk management, it is no wonder that many teams will do the absolute bare minimum required to meet onerous governance requirements.

If team members and other stakeholders don't know what effective project risk management looks like, how can they be expected to improve? If there are no coaches to help teams improve their capabilities, improvements in risk management will rarely happen organically. Competent risk management requires exceptional interpersonal skills in addition to some basic technical skills, so hands-on practice with feedback from seasoned practitioners is needed to improve.

Finally, there might not be a realization of the positive correlation between effective risk management and successful project outcomes. In the absence of supporting internal empirical data or strong pressure from the outside to create a valid sense of urgency, senior leaders and project teams will be unwilling to sustainably invest in the required behavior and practice changes.

Providing practitioners with risk management training or evolving project delivery standards might help in some small way, but real improvements will only come when these root causes are addressed.

Posted on: September 15, 2019 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)
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"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, 'hmm.... that's funny...'"

- Isaac Asimov

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