Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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Is Your Leadership Style Like Making Sausage?

Sometimes it’s Best not to Offer Your Feedback

Intentional Empowerment in Four Easy Steps

Not All Thought Leaders Are Great People Leaders

Write Great Project Management Articles in Four Easy Steps

Is Your Leadership Style Like Making Sausage?

I’m a huge fan of sausages. Whether it be Italian, bratwurst, chorizo, kielbasa, or andouille, I love the seasoning and the snap of the casing when you bite into it. Now I know that the stuff that goes into sausage is of the most undesirable parts of the animal including organs, guts, head, and other parts that I prefer not to think about. I have never had the opportunity to see sausage being made, and as a matter of principle; I don’t want to because I know I’d be grossed out and it would ruin my appetite each time I enjoyed a banger. I choose to remain blissfully ignorant about the sausage making process.

As this relates to leadership, I’ve seen many leaders who are able to get things done but the process in which they do it is ugly. The end result may be positive, but how they got there was filled with unnecessary stress, drama, rework, and wasted energy along the way. In fact, I’ve even seen some leaders who thrive on the chaos; working around the clock, napping in a sleeping bag in their office, surviving on coffee, Cheetos, and Coke. With a successful delivery, the leader rewards and gets rewarded for their delivery heroics and the personal sacrifices made. Now sometimes there truly is a need for participants in a well-planned and run project to burn the midnight oil. It’s not those situations I’m talking about; it’s when the leader fails to deliberately plan and execute the work, resulting in wasted energy, lost productivity, and frazzled nerves. Let me be extremely clear on this: It’s not enough to consistently deliver results but leave a trail of dead bodies in your wake; you need to deliver results through deliberate planning and execution. Now it could be that planning needs to happen concurrent with some execution; I’ve certainly done that when having to work to tight mandated dates from my leadership. When someone says to me, “Well, we got it done,” I ask, “Would your team follow you into battle again?” The answer to that question is a direct reflection on the leader’s ability to deliberately plan and execute the work. I’d love for someone to challenge me on this.

Are you a leader who gets things done but creates unnecessary friction with your team, manager, or stakeholders? Give these four tips a look to help you be a leader who executes without the drama and stress:

  • Deliberately plan work in what/who/when format – When outlining the work to be performed, be precise about what needs to be done, who needs to do it (no assignments to “team”), and when it needs to be done (no “asap” or “tbd”). If there is a tangible work product associated with the what, ensure clarity as to what the work product needs to include.
  • Empower wherever you can – I wrote a book and an article on what I call Intentional Empowerment, which outlines four clear steps on what a leader needs to do to create empowered followers. Empowering your team not only enables more to be done; it also creates a happier and more productive workforce.
  • Establish a clear communication cadence – Develop a communication plan for team members, your manager, and stakeholders to keep them apprised of progress and minimize work disruptions due to confusion or misalignment of work. Be clear about what is communicated, its frequency, and the mode (email, meeting, etc.) the communication occurs.
  • Be available and responsive to requests for help – Things happen which can impact planned work, delivery dates, or participation of key team members or stakeholders. Whether they be issues (something bad is happening now and needs to be addressed), or risks (something might happen that you want to avoid coming true), your job is to be there to help the team when they can’t resolve something on their own.

A leader who gets things done without regard for the chaos he or she creates along the way won’t be a leader for long. Be a leader who deliberately plans and executes and you’ll establish a reputation as someone people will want to follow.

Posted on: September 11, 2020 08:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sometimes it’s Best not to Offer Your Feedback

Despite my very best intentions, there are some people I have encountered throughout my life who simply are not interested in and do not want my feedback.   I would spend a lot of time writing behaviors down, focusing on how I thought others perceived their behavior, and desired changes to behavior.  I would focus on facts and keep things as unemotional as possible during the feedback session.  Even with doing all the right things, my feedback sessions would go bust.

In looking at what went wrong in my failed feedback sessions, I was able to bring it down to several key factors, as follows:

  • My relationship with the recipient wasn’t trusting to a point where I could provide feedback safely.
  • My perspective on the situation was wrong and I provided feedback inappropriately.
  • I hadn’t learned how to give good, constructive, empathetic feedback.  

When I was a young manager, I had a very experienced administrative assistant who worked with me. The person was very competent in the job and did everything I needed very well.  One thing that bothered me, though, was the person's workstation.  There were stacks of paper all around the workstation.  I, in my own naiveté, couldn’t understand how the person could get things done with all that clutter so I offered  some feedback to clean up the workstation to be more effective.  Bad move on my part.  The person got pretty ticked with me and asked me whether the workstation was affecting an ability to do a job. The person was dead right and it took me a long time to re-build our relationship.   My feedback was not steeped in fact, it was based on my perception of what I thought was right.  Painful lesson.

Before you offer up your feedback, think about some of the following things first and then decide: 

You already have a strained relationship with the recipient – As desperately as you may be to provide feedback to a recipient, you may not have a trusting relationship built with the recipient to provide effective feedback.   If you don’t have that trusting relationship, clam up on the feedback.  If you’re not sure, ask a colleague who knows both you and the recipient and get his or her opinion.  

You’re unsure of the facts – You may feel compelled to offer feedback, but if facts are sketchy do your homework first.   You may find the feedback is legitimate, but you may also find the feedback isn’t warranted because the facts don’t support the need for feedback.  Get clear on the facts before you formulate your feedback. 

You’re not in an authoritative position to offer the feedback – A number of years back I offered some feedback to a colleague on his attitude in team meetings.  He in no uncertain terms told me to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine and that because I was just a peer he wasn’t willing to listen to the feedback.  My error in the situation was that I offered feedback to a colleague who didn’t see it as my place to offer the feedback because I wasn’t in an authoritative position and didn’t have a good enough relationship to offer peer feedback. 

You’ve received feedback that you don’t give good feedback – You may feel compelled to offer feedback, but if you’ve received feedback that you aren’t effective at offering constructive feedback, resist the urge.  Work on your own ability to give feedback with a colleague or friend first in “practice sessions” using some of the techniques I’ve highlighted in this book. 

Sometimes the best feedback you can provide is no feedback at all.  If your feedback will only be putting fuel on the fire because of strained relationships, unclear facts, or your own ability to deliver effective feedback, hold your tongue and let someone else do it.  You’ll save yourself and your recipient a lot of stress and will keep from further deteriorating a relationship.

Posted on: September 06, 2020 10:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Intentional Empowerment in Four Easy Steps

Empowerment.

One of the most over-used, warmed-over leadership terms uttered daily. Leaders high and low espouse their expertise in empowering teams to deliver. Some are very good at it, fostering high-performance teams who deliver great results. Others, though, only think they are good at it but frustrate teams with micromanagement, apathy, vagueness, and randomization. Most anyone who has been around the block has seen both good and bad empowerment examples. As for me, I’ve not only seen it, I’ve committed both the good and bad. It took me years to understand that empowerment isn’t just about delegating tasks to be performed. True empowerment is about entrusting individuals with problems to be solved and supporting them in the process. A high-performance empowered team owns problems or missions and is supported by a leader who provides clarity, gives guidance, and resolves only those issues the team can’t resolve on their own. To put some meat on this, I like to think of empowerment as systematic, with four critical steps needed to ensure its success. I call this intentional empowerment.

Intentional Empowerment

Step 1 – Define the problem to be solved and ownership

The first step in intentional empowerment is the clear articulation of a problem statement. The size of the problem doesn’t matter, it can be something that will take hours, days, or months to solve. What matters is a clear understanding of the problem statement, as well as ownership of the problem statement and the resulting solution.

Here is a good example:

  • We need to reduce our invoice processing costs by 15% to align with mandated cuts across the organization. I would like you to take point on creation and execution of a plan to achieve the 15% cost-reduction goal.

And a bad one:

  • Go develop process flows on our invoicing process so we can look for cost reductions.

While process flows may be a necessary step, you as the leader have delegated an errand to someone else and retained control of the problem. The person will run the errand, give you process flows, then await your next instruction.

Step 2 – Articulate the guiding principles

Articulating guiding principles is about policy, legal, regulatory, or other guidelines which the solution needs to adhere to. Note this is not about telling the problem owner how to do something, it’s about ensuring the problem owner knows the boundaries that he or she needs to abide by in solving the problem.

Some good examples of guiding principles:

  • All invoices must be paid within ten days to ensure we get a 2% trade discount.
  • Any personnel hire/fire recommendations must be first discussed with HR and kept strictly confidential
  • Ensure the solution has the buy-in of the purchasing director.

And a couple of bad examples:

  • Here is how you should go about solving the problem.
  • Go talk to the purchasing director, interview her on what she thinks should be done, and tell me what she says.

Guiding principles aren’t about controlling how something gets done, they are about the problem owner knowing what latitude he or she has in solution definition. 

Step 3 – Ensure agreement on key dates
Knowing when something needs to be done and any key interim milestone dates enables the problem owner to figure out tasks and resourcing needs to hit the dates. It’s crucial here to get crisp on a specific date, not an “ASAP,” “immediately,” or “yesterday” date. It’s important for the leader to have his or her key dates thought out to ensure alignment with the problem owner. A good example:

  • We need the plan done by April 15 in time for our annual review with the VP with subsequent implementation complete by fiscal year start of July 1.

And bad ones:

  • I need it yesterday.
  • I need it ASAP.

It may be that a problem needs to be resolved urgently; if that’s the case then stress the urgency to the problem owner but put a date on it. Don’t leave the when up to interpretation.

Step 4 – Establish the follow-up cadence
Key to intentional empowerment is an agreed-upon and timely follow-up cadence that both the leader and problem owner understand and agree is appropriate. When done well, the leader and problem owner stay aligned on execution and can fulfill project “asks” on a timely basis. It also minimizes surprises and frantic rework when expectations aren’t met. Just as importantly, though, is the leader staying in his or her lane by serving as a resource for the problem owner. An impatient or meddling leader can start micro-managing or dictating how something should be done. The problem owner turns into errand runner, with the leader hijacking problem ownership. Empowerment gone bad.

The cadence frequency should be appropriate to the problem and its due date, whether it be monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, or some other increment. As a leader it’s important to work on the frequency right-sizing with the problem owner; too infrequent can communicate disinterest, too frequent can communicate distrust. Here is an example for a project with a due date of one month:

  • Schedule 15 minutes each Friday for both of us to go through status, issues, risks, and any help-wanted requests.

For the same project here are a couple of bad examples:

  • Check in with me every day to tell me what you’ve done and what you’re going to do.
  • I’m very busy, just let me know when it’s done.

There’s no one-size-fits-all follow-up cadence, what’s important is that the cadence exists, and both the leader and problem owner agree it’s appropriate. Again, too-infrequent follow-up communicates disinterest, while too-frequent follow-up communicates distrust.

I want to leave you with one last thought. Empowerment is a privilege, not a right. Those who are empowered have to earn and keep the trust of their manager, peers, and employees. Ensure when you are empowering someone to solve a problem that you are doing so because you trust him/her, and that if the trust is breached the willingness to empower diminishes. With that being said, take the time to understand intentional empowerment and use it to create high-performance teams that deliver value to your organization.

Posted on: August 16, 2020 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Not All Thought Leaders Are Great People Leaders

Bud was one of the most brilliant people in his organization. Only in his mid-thirties, Bud amazed his senior managers with his ability to grasp problems and develop innovative and effective solutions to those problems.  He was highly sought after as a "go-to" guy and would consistently come up with creative approaches.  His management decided to give him a thorny project with a team of over 100 professionals.  "This is my chance to really prove I can deliver", Bud thought as he willingly accepted the project.

Bud wasted no time in coming up with some great solutions which his management thought were brilliant.  Expectations were sky-high and Bud was on a project high.  Then the problems started.

Though Bud did a great job of defining solutions, he had extreme difficulty articulating the work required to get from the current state to the desired solution.  He frequently lost patience with project team members when they brought up problems or issues and accused them of "stonewalling" the project.  Project risks were ignored and dismissed as trivial.  The team grew increasingly frustrated with Bud, the project schedule was in chronic slippage, and management grew increasingly concerned about Bud's ability to deliver.  Bud ultimately was removed as project lead.

Thought Leaders Aren't Necessarily Good People Leaders

In my years I've seen many great thought leaders crash and burn when they had to implement one of their creations.  In most cases someone in management made the assumption that because the thought leader came up with a great idea, that they could -- and should -- actually implement the idea.  This if-then relationship simply doesn't always hold water.  Unfortunately this lesson typically is learned the hard way; with the thought leader being thrust into the people leader role only to crash and burn. 

Now don't get me wrong; the world desperately needs thought leaders regardless of their ability to lead people.  What does need to occur, though, is a conscious recognition of whether a leader is a thought leader, people leader, or can do both.  For those leaders who are great thought leaders and not people leaders, don't expect them to implement large-scale solutions.  For those who are great people leaders and not thought leaders, don't expect them to design innovative solutions.  For those who do both well then enjoy the versatility and leverage it to the fullest.

The nugget here is simple:  decide if you are a thought leader, people leader, or you excel at both.  Then seek out assignments that best leverage your strength and provide the greatest value to your organization. 

Thought Leaders Design Innovative Solutions
People Leaders Implement Innovative Solutions

Posted on: August 10, 2020 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Write Great Project Management Articles in Four Easy Steps

When I wrote my first book in 2004 my publicist told me, "you've got to write articles to get your message out and sell books!"  Being a good soldier I saluted and contemplated how I was going to get it done.   My publicist turned me on to a ghost writer who wrote an article under my guidance.  After paying way too much for the article and seeing the finished product, I vowed never again to have someone else write for me.  I decided that if I had crappy articles it was going to be because I was the one who wrote them, not because I paid someone to write crappy articles for me. 

Fast forward to today.  I've written hundreds of articles and locked down on a methodology to writing articles which stay on topic, aren't disjointed, and are easy to create.  Here's what I do:

Every article I write has four sections, as follows:

  1. Opening story
  2. Core message, or "meat" of the article
  3. Take-aways
  4. Close

 

If you look at my articles you'll be able to pick up on this structure.  The secret sauce comes in not the sections themselves, but the order in which the sections are written.  I write the article in the following sequence:

  1. Take-aways
  2. Core message, or "meat" of the article
  3. Close
  4. Opening story

 

Here's why I do it in this sequence.  I start first with take-aways because that is what I want my readers to get out of my article.  By starting with the take-aways, I ensure that I am putting the reader first and writing for the reader's benefit.  Next I construct the core message, or "meat" of the article.  The core message has to support the take-aways; if I've constructed the take-aways first then I better ensure the core message aligns to the take-aways.  Next I decide how I want to close the article, which is typically a one to two-sentence statement that underscores my core message.  The close leaves the last impression which needs to align to the core message.  Last, I write the opening story.  By writing the opening story last, I ensure that there is a relevant and seamless transition into the core message and that the opening story grabs the attention of the reader. 

When I use this structure, I not only get a better quality article, but can produce an article much faster than using the old method of "start at the beginning."  If you want to see an example go here. See if you can pick up on the article flow.  Happy writing!

Posted on: August 02, 2020 11:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)
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