Grace Willis, PMP, says unconscious bias often “renders project leadership an endeavor in swimming upstream.” Such challenges represent symptoms of larger societal issues to be overcome, but underlying tenets hold true when it comes to good project outcomes—engage your teams, understand your stakeholders, and be authentic.
Grace, how did you get into project management? Since graduating college and entering the world of management consulting, elements of project management have been consistently integral to my job duties. However, if I had to select a turning point, it would be during an internship I held while pursuing my MBA. A mentor and supervisor suggested that I formally pursue PMI certification. He thought I'd make a great project manager based on my performance in the internship. I heeded his advice, pursued the official process, targeted my job search to roles with the official "Project Management" title, and took the exam. The rest is history; I've been a certified PMI-PMP since 2010.
What do you love most about the work? I was initially drawn to the ability to help achieve objectives whilst coordinating subject matter experts. The project management experience was akin to conducting an orchestra where each valuable specialist in unison with others created outcomes.
However, as my professional acumen deepened in this space and dysfunction emerged from the woodwork, I became intrigued in understanding organizational dysfunction and uncovering its impacts, which include misalignment between projects and organizational strategy, poor vetting of stakeholders and suppliers, unmitigated risk, and waste. The latter led me to broaden my skills and pursue Lean Six Sigma under the tutelage of Six Sigma Blackbelts. This journey into lean was essentially my formal exposure to process improvement—an asset I leverage even today as an Agilist.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? What was most frustrating is the misuse of the title “Project Manager.” It has been used by employers to mean everything from glorified Executive Assistant to Systems Engineer, with a touch of project management capability. This is a disservice to candidates and represents a sort of “bait-and-switch” recruiting tactic. The discrepancy between title and function is what inspired my first contribution to PMI in which I discussed the many shades of meaning tagged to the "Project Manager" role and title.
An extension to this phenomenon was the inattention given to selection of project team members and suppliers. Most disappointing was senior leaders with organizational power but a comfortable ignorance of the Project Manager role—a dangerous cocktail.
Does your approach change with the environment in which you’re working? I’ve worked internationally in countries with a national language other than English. I have found, when it comes to project management, people are people. This is not to ignore certain cultural nuances such as hierarchy, labor laws, indices of respect, and of course, language. However, some underlying tenets hold true:
Where there are implications is how I am received when I show up. Specifically, there will be persons who have intrinsic challenges such as unconscious bias, preconceived notions, discomfort with change and so on, with the collective result being their struggle to respond professionally to someone fitting my profile. Their struggle then renders project leadership an endeavor in swimming upstream because these persons are resisting the project manager—not necessarily the work to be done.
Some of the laundry list of challenges are at the forefront of conversations going on in our current environment and represent symptoms of larger societal issues that remain to be overcome. One can only come as far as the organization allows unproductive and disruptive organizational cultural behaviors to flourish or be minimally, if at all, addressed.
What's your proudest professional achievement? Contributing thought leadership to the community. I have had several articles published whose content touches on real-world experiences, which often diverge from theories laid out in bodies of knowledge. Being able to candidly share field experiences through various print and digital avenues—and having an excerpt of my articles be selected for publication in a compilation—makes me proud.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? Remain authentic. Being your true self comes with risk, especially when you must deliver tough messages. In my career, I’ve had to deliver recommendations to end a project or rethink an initiative. In these instances, leadership was holding on for dear life to make things work despite clear indices that the endeavor was failing due to deep-seated and systemic impediments. Sponsors were simply victims of the sunk cost fallacy—in a nutshell, the misguided belief in the approach to continue going because we've come this far and already spent so much money/time/resources.
In my current career as an Agile leader, I’ve had to deliver messages that an engagement was not viable, or that business leaders and team members involved in a transformation were ill-suited.
Support your authenticity by having your facts ready. Data points, data points, data points are essential. Make the connection between the data and the impact. Finally, come to the table with recommendations and possible next steps. If your authenticity is met with negativity, then evaluate if you really want to stay in the environment you're in.
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? It’s great to be able to get direct feedback via comments from community members—something that wouldn’t have been possible via the PM Network magazine alone. The community, reading what others are doing, and invitations to informative webinars, has been great.
Where are you from? Where are you based? I’m Jamaican, proud to be one, and very proud of our national motto "Out of Many, One People.” My second home is southeast Florida, which itself is home to a large contingent of the Jamaican diaspora.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside your day-to-day work? Decorating. I have a weakness for retailers that focus on home beautification and kitchen gadgets. Other than that, I like to discover new parks and trails, swim, go to the beach and travel.
What about a favorite TV show, artist, movie? Law and Order—all of them. Phil Collins, the Peters (Cetera and Gabriel), Bob Marley and Bon Jovi. For movie, it’s a three-way tie between Dancehall Queen, and the original releases of Back to the Future and The Terminator.
Best vacation? During the summer before my last year of college, backpacking across France and taking full advantage of my France Rail Pass encapsulated a blissful, adventurous, and precious era in my life that stays with me to this day.
Thank you Grace!
Let's Meet John Farlik...
John Farlik, a senior IT project manager for AAA of the Carolinas, loves enabling teams to achieve new levels of success, which requires much more than just being a "task master" or "herding cats."
John, how did you get into project management? I served in the United States Air Force from 2001 to 2013, and was exposed to a project engineer position in 2007. There I learned about the systems engineering “V”, the five phases of a project, the cost-schedule-scope triangle, and much more. I soon got into managing software, and then was exposed to iterative methods such as spiral development, agile development, scrum, and I was hooked.
What do you love most about the work? Unequivocally, setting up a structure for execution within which teammates can achieve a level of success that they haven’t seen before.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? When people think that I’m there to help “herd the cats” and be the “task master." That’s only the base layer of project management. The ability to organize a meeting and manage a schedule is basic. It is the configuration management, risk and issue tracking, and communications regarding how teams interact together that is the real skill of the profession.
What's your proudest professional achievement? Earning my Doctoral degree in 2016.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? Project management success and project success are not the same thing. You can still be successful as a project manager even if the project fails. Sometimes things are beyond your control, and it’s how you handle yourself as a professional during those times that shows true grit.
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? I’ve browsed content for a general knowledge of the profession, and have taken webinars for continuing education credits. Recently, I’ve started creating content [including a blog called The Pivot Theory to Practice], which is where I’ve really started to enjoy the interaction with people. I’ve been amazed at some of the discussions that we have. The community really is a group of great people who want to assist one another on a global scale.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside work? Board and card games with family, exercising, and teaching — I teach HR, Operations and Project Management.
Favorite TV show, artist or movie? Anything with Denzel Washington or Mel Gibson
Best vacation? St. Lucia for two weeks with my wife (before kids).
To connect with John, visit his ProjectManagement.com profile.
Eric Simms is a senior program manager for the U.S. Census Bureau. He regards projects like Sudoku puzzles and is proud of showing skeptical developers that project management, properly applied, could be a good friend.
Eric, how did you get into project management? I unknowingly entered the project management field in 1996 during my first real job after graduating college. I was a Quality Control Director, and it was only years later that I discovered many of the actions I performed in that role were considered "project management."
What do you love most about the work? I most enjoy the complexity surrounding project management, particularly the delicate balance required to meet stakeholder expectations while successfully executing the project. I regard a project rather like a Sudoku puzzle, but one with a practical, beneficial outcome.
What do you find most challenging or frustrating? As a consultant I often lack the authority to make high-level executives do what they should. As a result, my team and I usually need to perform extra work to fix the problems caused by the executives’ actions or lack thereof. I resent wasting time and energy in this manner, and I resent organizations that allow their executives to act like entitled divas in the first place.
What's your proudest professional achievement? As a contractor without formal authority I was able to transform a group of unorganized developers who viewed project management as useless bureaucracy into an effective projectized business unit. I accomplished this by showing the developers how project management — properly applied — can greatly enhance their productivity.
What's the best piece of advice you've received or can share? Don’t let anyone make you believe a project must be managed in one particular way. All project management methodologies and documentation are merely tools to help you successfully execute a project — how you use them is up to you. No two projects are exactly the same, and just because a method worked well for one doesn’t mean it will work well for yours. Also, best practices are good guidelines to follow, but they’re only guidelines. Feel free to amend them to suit your particular situation.
How has ProjectManagement.com helped you in your work and career? Every member sees project management from a different vantage, and I have learned much from their many different perspectives. Some of the questions asked and situations described are outside my experience, and I benefit greatly from considering how I would address them.
What interests or hobbies do you have outside work? I enjoy weightlifting, gardening, travel and entertaining in my home.
Favorite TV show, artist or movie? Game of Thrones is currently my favorite TV show, and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is my favorite painting.
Best vacation? I visited Quebec’s old city with some friends. The snow fell gently that day, and it made for a quintessential Christmas village scene.
Thank you Eric!
To connect with Eric, visit his ProjectManagement.com profile.