An unfortunate analogy that can be made of project managers is that in many respects they are like worrying parents. They invest a significant amount of effort, credibility and emotion into the nurturing of their projects, so anything that is likely to impact the success of their offspring is going to affect them in a very similar fashion.
There is a broad range to this type of behavior – some parents (usually those who have more than one child) are mature enough to monitor things from a distance but to also be prepared to act if required whereas others micro-manage their kids lives to the point of almost smothering them in bubble wrap!
The same can be said about project managers – some trust their team members and stakeholders to be professional enough to come to them proactively when concerns are identified, whereas others won’t be comfortable if they are not constantly touching base to make sure all is well.
This behavior extends beyond risk and issue management to quality – just as some parents have the need to mold and hammer their children to fit the parents’ vision of how they should turn out, some project managers exhibit the irresistible urge to constantly tweak or tune deliverables, frequently alienating their teams in the process.
While such behavior is detrimental to healthy team development and the perceptions created can linger well beyond the lifetime of an individual project, it is also not conducive to a good work-life balance.
Project managers who demonstrate the compelling need to stay on top of absolutely everything and to worry past the point of reason can end up neglecting spending quality time with their families or their own professional development. When challenged about their lack of attention to these critical activities they will rarely indicate that they felt they could have taken an alternative course of action.
Should a project manager be vigilant and take ownership for getting actions, issues & risks addressed – absolutely, if not, they will likely satisfy one or more of Neal Whitten’s ten signs of “too soft” project management behavior! However a project manager also must recognize the limits of their ability to positively influence project outcomes – in spite of these efforts, the project may still suffer for reasons outside of their control.
This is where that critical but elusive project management competency of judgment is required to help them accept the things they cannot change, draw on courage to change the things they can and have the wisdom to know the difference.
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in April 2013 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)
Two frequently heard phrases in many companies are “Change is the only constant” and “Change is the new normal”. These sayings reflect the accelerated pace of change in processes and tools as compared with things just a few decades back.
The fly in the ointment is the human factor – we are certainly more flexible than our simian ancestors but we have not yet reached the point of change fluidity to be able to adapt on the fly. Everyone takes some time to internalize and to gain efficiencies when learning something new – it may not require Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, but it is not immediate.
This effect applies equally to those who are fully embracing a change as well as those actively resisting it and how much practice and how much time is required to be ready for the next change varies from person to person and is dependent on the magnitude and complexity of the previous change’s impact.
Until we have repeated new procedures sufficient times for reactions to become automatic, we are forced to check ourselves constantly to ensure we are taking the right steps. This frequent need to check generates internal tension which dissipates as we become more and more familiar with the new practices. With sufficient time and practice, the changed procedures become our “new normal” at which point the change tension spring is fully relaxed and we are primed for the next change.
The challenge in many organizations is that the desired pace of change outstrips the staff’s ability to quickly return to a state of equilibrium. In such environments, a new change gets introduced before the previous change has been fully assimilated and tension increases. Over time, this escalating tension will cause increased resistance from even the most change resilient staff. Taken to the extreme, frequent process improvements result in worse productivity than if no improvements had been implemented.
So how can this be avoided?
As seen in the movie The Matrix – Neo can “jack in” and learn about Kung-Fu and advanced weaponry, but knowing the path and walking the path requires almost the full film.
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in May 2014 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)
Outside of professional arenas, in sports such as weight-lifting, our competition is from within and not without.
Committed gym rats are keenly aware of how much weight they can lift, push or pull for each of the muscle groups in their workout rotation. Even though their overall goal might be to maintain their fitness level, they will try to add more weight.
So long as continuous improvement doesn't become an obsession, this internal competition is healthy since it facilitates positive social interactions with our gym buddies as we all strive to help each other beat their own personal bests.
So can this concept also apply to project management?
Competing against other project managers is as futile as comparing our workout performance with another.
Just as there is always someone at your gym who is bigger, stronger or leaner than you, there are going to be project managers who will perform better than you do within a given context. While it is possible to reach a performance peak for specific hard skills such as scheduling or budgeting through a combination of education and experience, improving our competencies with soft skills and business knowledge knows no limits.
Our people managers will always need to assess us for annual evaluation or incentive purposes but with an almost infinite range of influencing variables which can affect project performance it will be very challenging to identify minor differences in competency. This is why subjectivity often drives decisions such as who gets the highest bonus in a team where everyone is performing well.
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe how other project managers are practicing their trade and identify and mimic the patterns which seem to bring them success. I might observe a fellow gym user who is using a different stance for a particular exercise than mine which seems to enable him to lift more weight than I can. I could give that stance a try if I think it will help but I need to remember that the stance which works for one person given their height, weight and skeletal and muscular structure might not be suitable for me.
The same model of work out machine will feel different when one goes from one gym to another. Each project is unique hence what causes someone to be successful on project A might result in mediocre outcomes on project B. Knowing that our personal bests are constrained by context, if we can isolate or reduce the number of variables, we can then establish a baseline against which we can measure improvements in performance. If we have had a trying relationship with a given group of stakeholders, on subsequent projects we can attempt to reduce the number of conflicts we have with them.
Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do - John Wooden
Two of the most frequently raised questions in online project management discussion groups are: “Is project management more science than art?” and “Which is more important to succeed in project management – hard or soft skills?”
The usual consensus with such questions is that while one cannot ignore the need to develop a solid foundation of hard skills (the “science”), the lack of soft skills (the “art”) will be a hurdle blocking the career progression for most project managers.
In the pantheon of soft skills, active listening is a powerful method of proving the authenticity of your interest in what someone is saying and feeling, both of which are critical to gaining trust.
Active listening embodies the name of my blog – easy in theory but not so in practice.
Our ability to focus on anything for more than a few seconds is impacted by a variety of distractions. Unhealthy levels of multitasking combined with the siren songs of smartphones, e-mail and other technology-driven “enablers” have made it too easy for our minds to drift even when we are sitting right across from someone. Our lack of focus becomes evident to the other party, and they tune out of the conversation.
How can we improve our ability to actively listen?
Set yourself up for success by minimizing the sources of distraction when holding important discussions. Book a meeting room instead of an open area. Mute and turn off the vibrate mode on your smartphone. If you are taking notes, don’t keep your screen up or your notebook open the whole time and exploit lulls in the conversation as your opportunity to document what you have heard.
Schedule discussions at a time when you are less likely to experience a wandering mind. Don’t book meetings back-to-back as you are more likely to spend the first few minutes of each meeting recalling the previous one, not to mention the stress of rushing from the last meeting.
Recognize when your mind is wandering and gently bring yourself back into the conversation. Exercises in improving mindfulness can help to increase your focus over a longer time.
Whether or not you believe that commonly quoted statistic of 93% of communication being non-verbal, I’m sure you will agree that accepting everything you hear as the truth is likely to get you into trouble. Active listening is your key to resolving issues, unlocking motivations, and understanding hidden agendas.
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in November 2014 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)
When we think about brand, we usually think of the companies which have left indelible marks on our psyche due to the either positive or negative outcomes we have experienced with their products and services. Apple provides a great example of the power of positive branding – just thinking about that organization and its products brings a smile to the faces of many people.
How does brand help?
It provides marketing support to enable companies to distance themselves from their competition, especially when the products or services they offer cannot be easily differentiated based solely on price or features.
While this is important during prosperous times, it is crucial during economic downturns. Southwest Airlines was one of the few North American air carriers to survive and even thrive through the crippling fallout which impacted most of its competitors after 9/11.
When we think of brand in a phrase, a common word which follows it is loyalty. Brand loyalty is priceless – when customers become advocates, they become part of your marketing team.
But brand is not constant.
Companies which are viewed in a very positive light at one time, can lose their positive brand over time. Walmart is a good example of this. Under Sam Walton’s leadership, the company prospered nurtured by strong support from communities, employees and customers. However, in recent years, stories of sketchy labor practices and the impacts it has created on small business have tarnished its brand.
Ford suffered the double whammy of the oil crisis of the ‘70s and numerous quality issues which resulted in a number of creative but negative phrases based on the four letters comprising its name, and yet it has seen a resurgence in brand opinion resulting from innovative and strategic product development.
What are the implications for you as a project manager?
During good times, you might assure yourself of steady employment without any discernible brand so long as you are meeting expectations. However, when financial constraints force companies to downsize, they are less likely to cull staff who while having a track record of solid delivery have strong positive brands.
You can’t neglect your brand.
Take the time to pat yourself on the back after you’ve successfully delivered a particularly challenging project, but remember that “What have you done for me lately?” is the siren song which plays for those who rest on their laurels. Whether it’s reinforcing your brand through consistent performance or evolving your brand to remain competitive, you need to continue to invest in yourself.
A side effect of this is that if you suffer a failure but are able to recover gracefully, those loyal to your brand are more likely to forgive you in light of this loyalty than if haven’t taken the time to develop your brand.
Two key characteristics make up a project manager’s brand - the “what” and the “how”.
“What” includes the industry you operate in, the types of projects you have managed, and the nature of the project management work you do. One project manager might choose to focus on being a trouble-shooter – someone who can be brought in to rescue troubled projects the way “Red” Adair used to specialize in capping highly challenging oil well fires.
Specialization helps to define brand. But you could also decide to gain a reputation for being highly versatile – being the “MacGyver” who can be thrown in to any project and still be able to achieve project success.
But “what” goes beyond the context of your projects to also include the outcomes.
If you have never experienced a failure in spite of having managed significant depth and breadth of project complexity, you will be perceived as a super-hero. However, if you have a track record of avoiding challenging projects or requesting transfers from such projects when the going gets tough, Clark Kent might be more apt.
“How” focuses on your methods.
If your project management philosophy is that the end justifies the means then your brand is likely to make it difficult for you to receive good team members. Resource managers are not going to want to subject their staff to your “winning at any cost” ways. But if you have developed a track record of taking the Bad News Bears and turning them into winning teams through team building, coaching and servant-leadership you are likely to be in high demand.
Your brand as a project manager is not just about what and how you’ve managed your projects but also about your commitment to project management. Active contribution to supporting and evolving the profession is another method of differentiating yourself and will help to boost your brand.
You will cultivate sponsors and advocates over time, but create a brand for them to rally around.
Be the Chief Marketing Officer of Yourself, Inc. - no one else is vying for that job!
(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in December 2014 on Projecttimes.com)