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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Tomorrow (Almost) Never Comes

Stresspensation: Evaluating the Impact of Stress in Career Decision Making

Three Questions to Help You Keep Perspective

Shooting the Messenger

The 5 Tollgates of Selling Up-Part 5

Tomorrow (Almost) Never Comes

Tom looked at the clock.

“Midnight,” he said to himself as he took a sip of coffee. The milestone review for the second phase of the project was the next day. As he updated the project plan, he came across the organizational change management tasks that were supposed to be done in phase one that got pushed to phase two. He saw that the tasks were still zero percent complete.

“We’ll pick them up later,” he said to himself as he added the tasks to the phase three workplan.

During the milestone review the next day, Tom’s manager, Gayle, asked about the incomplete organizational change management tasks.

“Ran out of time,” Tom said. “We’ll get them done in phase three.”

“Isn’t that what you told me three months ago during our phase one review?” Gayle asked.

Tom looked down. “Um, yeah,” he said.

“Phase three is even more intense than phase two, what makes you think you’ll get the OCM tasks done in phase three if you didn’t get them done in phase one or two?”

“Gayle, we’ll get them done,” Tom said.

“OK, I’m holding you to it, Tom.”

Three months later, at the phase three milestone review, Tom walked through the workplan, then got to the OCM tasks. Tom knew what was coming.

“Still not done,” Gayle said as Tom avoided her gaze.

~~~~~

Before we go any further, I want to articulate a principle that I’ve not only seen in countless projects but also experienced personally:

The closer you get to a project delivery date, the less time you have to complete tasks kicked down the road from prior project phases.

It’s rare that availability to do work increases as the project gets closer to its final delivery date, and that tasks deferred throughout the project now have extra time to get done. Typically, the project team is working hard to accomplish the only-most-crucial tasks to meet delivery, with other tasks either deferred to post-release or not done at all. The attitude is that those tasks can be completed later when there’s more time. I have two problems with this:

  1. If the task was important enough to include in the original plan, then why is it now unimportant enough to be pushed to tomorrow (or not done at all?)
  2. Tomorrow (almost) never comes.

To avoid the temptation of kicking tasks down the road only to have them die on the vine, give these five takeaways a look:

  1. Don’t short-change planning – Pick your quote: Fail to plan, plan to fail; You don’t have time to do it right, but you always have time to do it over; Measure twice, cut once. The bottom line is to have a realistic and believable plan that focuses on deliverables, has an understood critical path, specifically named task owners (not “the team”), and clear dates. Just make sure the plan supports the project and doesn’t become a project in and of itself.
  2. Resist the urge to push tasks off – OK, sometimes hard choices need to be made and something might need to get pushed off to a later date. This becomes a problem when it’s the rule more than the exception. If you chronically push tasks off because you’ve run out of time, perhaps something in your planning needs to change.
  3. When you have to push tasks off, articulate the implications – Putting something off until later or cutting the task altogether means the project will incur some incremental risk (assuming the task was value-added in the first place). Have mitigation in place for managing any incremental risk.
  4. Adjust the plan when things hit the fan – I’ve seen it many times: a project starts out great, the plan is reviewed on a regular basis, life is good. Then something goes wrong. More often than not, the plan either doesn’t get updated to reflect reality or it gets abandoned altogether. Keep the plan current and drive decisions on hard choices when tasks must be deferred. Just remember to articulate the implications (see takeaway 3) of the choice. Keep the plan current and realistic.
  5. If it’s truly not necessary, then cut it – When planning your project, do a reality scrub to ensure only must-need tasks are included. Ask yourself, “What’s the consequence if this task isn’t done?” If there’s no clear consequence, then consider not doing it. Just make sure the project team agrees with cutting the task before it goes in the shredder.

Remember, the closer you get to a project delivery date, the less time you have to complete tasks kicked down the road. Resist the urge to push tasks off until tomorrow, because tomorrow almost never comes.

Posted on: December 02, 2021 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Stresspensation: Evaluating the Impact of Stress in Career Decision Making

Brad was an incredibly bright young executive with a very promising future. Ever since graduating college, he seemed to take on increased responsibilities in his company like a duck to water. He married his college sweetheart, Nancy, right after graduation and has two small children.

Brad's talent didn't go unnoticed in the industry, with several competitors approaching Brad about his willingness to join another firm. He steadfastly resisted, that is until the offer of all offers came his way.

ACME Corp, a larger and more prominent competitor to his current company, wined and dined Brad and ultimately offered him a VP position with a higher salary and better benefits. The offer was too good to pass up so Brad talked with Nancy about the job and they both became enamored with how this was going to advance Brad's career and what they would be able to do with the extra money. Brad joyfully accepted ACME's offer, gave his current company two weeks' notice, and started in his new VP role.

Within a year of joining ACME, he noticed some unexpected side effects of his new position. He was required to be in weekly global executive virtual meetings which could happen at any time of the day or night. He was routinely working 60+ hours a week, missing dinner with Nancy and the kids.

He traveled at least once a week, many times to put out fires at clients. His eating habits were horrendous and he wasn't exercising due to his schedule. He began putting on weight. Nancy was frustrated with him not being around and his kids missed their daddy. The stress was unbearable and led to Brad one day grabbing his chest and collapsing during a customer meeting.

While the above story about Brad is fictional, each one of us knows of a Brad (or perhaps is Brad) who made a career choice without considering the effects of the extra stress. The American Institute of Stress (yes there is such an organization) has quantified the cost of stress to employers at $300 billion annually due to things such as absenteeism, accidents, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical costs.

Add to that the personal costs of stress (i.e., poor health, weight gain/loss, sleep deprivation) and the relationship costs of stress (i.e., fractured relationships, friends or loved ones alienation, missed school plays), and you have a perfect storm of negative factors which make any kind of work-life balance virtually impossible to attain.

In my 30 years of working with career professionals, stress typically takes a back seat to compensation and when considered, it is usually only a slice of the true stress level that the professional will endure. In the first ten years of my own career I saw stress as a given and gave it no consideration when evaluating career alternatives.

This was a big mistake and a lesson I learned the hard way. Fortunately I learned it early in my career and was able to make some positive changes. However, some professionals never get it.

To help the professional evaluate the impact of stress when deciding on a career change, I've defined a comparative increase/decrease method to evaluate the impact of stress, based on three stress types:

  • (a) Relationship Stress
  • (b) Work Stress
  • (c) Personal Stress

For each stress type, a qualitative degree of stress is defined as follows:

  1. Minimal Stress
  2. Moderate Stress
  3. Significant Stress

In evaluating the impact of stress, each of the three stress types is assigned a value for the current and new job alternatives, then a comparative increase/decrease assessment is derived for each stress type. Let's put this to an example.

Lets say that a systems analyst (I'll call her Ann) is currently in a job paying $90,000/year and she's been offered a new position paying $100,000/year. On the surface, Ann likes the idea of a $10k raise and looks at the three stress types for each job, as follows:

Current Position

  • Relationship stress = 2 due to infrequent evening meetings only.
  • Personal stress = 1 due to ability to keep up with personal interests without sacrifice
  • Work stress = 2 due to some tight deadlines

New Position

  • Relationship stress = 3 due to evening meetings and four international trips/year to work with offshore developers
  • Personal stress = 2 due to having to alter exercise schedule, and having to drop book club
  • Work stress = 3 due to mission critical deadlines and regular status updates to senior management

When you look at the three stress types the following pops out about the new position:

Ann is now faced with the following decision: Is the salary bump of $10k worth the incremental relationship, personal and work stress she'll endure? Depending on whatever other decision criteria Ann factors into her decision, the answer could be yes or no. Whether or not she takes the job is still her decision; what the process has done is forced her to consider the three stress types and derive data points in which she can use in her overall decision-making.

There are a number of important considerations for you to digest in using this methodology:

  1. First, this is not an autonomic decision-making tool where the numeric answer is the sole job determinant. The impact of stress methodology is meant to bring relationship, personal, and work stress factors to the forefront of your decision making process.
  2. Second, you need to be realistic about stress levels. "Wishing down" a stress level doesn't make it go away; it just sets you up for a letdown (or worse) after you've made your decision.
  3. Third, you need to let your friends and loved ones come up with the relationship stress value and not assume a value for them. The real benefit in the methodology is the thought process and discussions you have along the way. Don't shortcut how your stress type values are determined or you'll miss out on some valuable nuggets.
  4. Fourth, the methodology applies to any type of career change which involves new or different responsibilities, including promotions. Most of us are wired to blindly accept promotions without regard for the additional stress which may accompany the promotion.
  5. Fifth, there will likely be stress in any job change; make sure you look at your steady-state stress level versus the "learning curve" stress level.

Your Go-Dos
When faced with your next career decision, follow these six steps to assess your impact of stress and help you decide on your career choice course of action:

  1. Ask a lot of questions about the job and the degree of relationship, personal and work stress entailed in the job. Seek out others who may have done the job before or others who have some inside perspective.
  2. Look at the job responsibilities (both stated and those you derive through interviews) and determine how much stress each of the responsibilities will create for you. Decide on a 1-3 work stress value.
  3. Write down the personal activities and goals you have (i.e. exercise 4x/week, sleep at least 7 hours a night) and determine how the career choice would impact each of the activities and goals. Decide on a 1-3 personal stress value.
  4. Openly discuss with your friends and loved ones what the career choice would mean in terms of impact to relationship time (i.e. not being home for dinner, availability to help with homework) and ask them to decide on a 1-3 relationship stress value.
  5. Derive the increase/decrease in stress for each of the three stress types.
  6. Decide how you're going to factor the impact of stress into your overall decision.

Remember, the real benefit in utilizing the impact of stress methodology is in the discovery process you'll go through to understand relationship, personal, and work stress drivers for different career choices. Be real with yourself as to how a career choice will affect you and those you love.

Posted on: November 19, 2021 10:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Three Questions to Help You Keep Perspective

Friday looked to be like any other day.

I got up, had breakfast, and left the house around 8:30 for a day of meetings. We had planned on having another couple over for dinner that night and a day trip with our son on Saturday. About noon, Patty called me saying she had a pain in her abdomen since getting up and it was getting worse. I asked her if she wanted me to come home. She told me she didn’t need me home, but that we should probably cancel dinner in the event she had something contagious. I was out for a few more hours and came home to her sitting on the couch, saying the pain wasn’t going away. Her temperature was 101. We talked to a tele nurse who suggested it might be an infection and that we should go to urgent care. After a short wait we got checked in. The pain continued on, now accompanied by nausea. They ran blood tests then, after seeing the results, decided to do a computed tomography (CT) scan of her abdomen. What did the blood tests reveal? Why the CT scan? What were they looking for? What’s going on? These questions raced through my mind as they took Patty away for the scan. About ten minutes later she came back, where we sat and waited for about two hours; Patty’s pain stubbornly persistent along with the nausea. Then the doctor came in.

“There’s some stuff going on,” she said as she came into the room. In that moment I don’t know how many thoughts went through my head. “It’s appendicitis,” she said. “We’re going to keep you here overnight and get you in for surgery in the morning. Pretty routine.” A huge wave of relief came over me. Certainly, the fact that Patty was going to need surgery wasn’t good news, but on the spectrum of bad news in my head this was about the best bad news we could have gotten. She stayed overnight, then around 1:30 in the afternoon went in for a laparoscopic appendectomy, where they made three small incisions in her abdomen and, using telescopic rods and a video camera, removed the angry appendix. We were back home by 5:30PM, only four hours after the surgery, where she began her recovery.

I am writing this on Sunday, the day after her surgery. She is resting comfortably and has eaten, showered, and put on her makeup. I am so thankful that it wasn’t more serious and that she is going to be back to normal in no time. What the events of the last couple of days did remind me of, though, was two words that we as leaders need to remember:

Keep perspective.

In my career I’ve had plenty of times where I thought the whole world was crashing around me. Whether it be a slipping (or failed) project, difficult issue with an employee, or totally unforeseen issue that consumed my time, in nearly every circumstance the crisis was dealt with and didn’t impact my long-term career trajectory. I’ve had a number of times in my career where I was “reminded” that what I was dealing with was minor in comparison to major life issues such as losing a loved one. Losing my sister to cancer at age 54 was a massive wake-up call to calibrate the crisis of the day and keep perspective on problems we deal with.

Now I’m not saying that we as leaders should be tone deaf when problems arise; by all means we need to address issues and not put our heads in the sand. What great leaders do, though is address issues focused and deliberately without creating additional stress along the way.

Through my career I’ve learned to ask myself three questions to help me keep perspective when dealing with issues:

  1. Will the crisis impact me in the future or will I have long forgotten about it a year from now?
  2. Will someone be harmed in any way because of the crisis?
  3. How does this crisis compare with things like sickness or losing a loved one?

As leaders, it’s easy to get consumed by the crisis du jour and allow it to wreck your day. My ask to you is that you keep things in perspective and ask yourself the three questions when you’re dealing with you next crisis. Hopefully it will give you some peace that, while the crisis is important, it may not be as earth-shattering as it feels in the moment.

Posted on: November 01, 2021 08:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Shooting the Messenger

When I screw up, I have one way that I have found effective at helping me get through it and learn from it.

I write about it.

This is one of those royal jerk screw-up times.

Patty and I stayed at a hotel where we paid about $300/night. The room was clean and the location good, but the service and amenities were definitely substandard, certainly not something we’d expect from a $300/night room. The night before we checked out, we put together a number of issues and I sent it to the hotel’s customer service site, requesting a reduction in our room rate. The next morning, I talked with the hotel sales director about some of our issues. She was pleasant and empathic and said she would talk with the general manager.  A couple of hours later while driving we got a call from the sales director informing us that the hotel would not make any adjustment.

This is where the jerk part comes in.

I told - no yelled – that the sales director was making a mistake and that we were going to publish our issues with a poor rating on the travel website that we booked the reservation. After a couple more words I hung up. Patty was silent, which meant I was in the doghouse. I said to her, “Hilton would have given us better service.” That’s when she told me (rightly so) that I was rude to the sales director, that she was only the messenger, and that I should have never talked to her that way. The next 30 minutes in the car were pretty silent; I knew she was right and just needed a bit of time to reflect. We stopped at a Subway for lunch and while we split a turkey sub I told her she was right and how I shouldn’t have done what I did. After we arrived at our next hotel I emailed her an apology which she graciously responded to. Even with the apology, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting a Christmas card from her.

I’d like to say that my primary motivation for writing this article was to give you something to chew on; actually, it’s more a reminder to me and if you get collateral benefit then all the better. Even after reflecting on my actions I still believe that me being disappointed with our stay at the hotel was justified. However, as I look back on my actions there are four things I did wrong:

  1. I shot the messenger – The sales director wasn’t the decision maker; she was only delivering a message from her boss. I neglected to acknowledge that she was only conveying a message, and that she wasn’t the decision maker.
  2. I talked to her in a tone she didn’t deserve – I wasn’t calm and measured in my demeanor; I was angry and I wanted her to know it. I could have gotten my point across just as effectively without turning into a Tasmanian devil.
  3. I let my ego get in the way of doing the right thing – When the sales director didn’t give me what I thought I deserved I took it personally and reacted as if her actions were personal. In reality, she was just doing her job.
  4. I damaged a relationship with a potential customer – Some would say that I’ll likely never see her again, so who cares? In my profession anyone wanting to learn more about leadership, project management, or disability inclusion is a potential customer. Any help I could have given her is likely an opportunity lost.

My point to not only you as my readers but as a reminder to me is as follows: be firm in your convictions but do it with respect. You don’t have to be a wet noodle and give in to others; just don’t be a horse’s hind during the process.

Posted on: October 16, 2021 04:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

The 5 Tollgates of Selling Up-Part 5

“I’m in!” Lori, the department general manager said to Caleb. Caleb had just joined Lori’s department from a competitor where he had worked for two years after college. This was his first one-on-one meeting with Lori. Lori had a strong reputation as a people cultivator and looked for opportunities to grow her staff with in-the-moment learning opportunities. She was about to get that opportunity with Caleb.

“Great to hear. I can get going on the plan right away,” Caleb said.

“That’s great, now what do you need from me?”

Caleb stopped. “Um, I’m sorry?”

“What do you need from me?”

“Uh, nothing.”

“Nothing? Do you have the support you need from my management team?”

“Well, I was going to talk with them about it.”

Seeing the teachable moment opportunity, Lori decided to help Caleb think things through.

“Caleb, wouldn’t it be easier on you if the message came down from me that we needed to do this work and that they all should give you their full cooperation?”

“Actually, yes that would help.”

“And wouldn’t it help if I let finance know you were going to be coming to them with an ask for budget?”

“Yes, that would help too, Lori.”

“So you see where I’m heading, right?”

Caleb thought for a moment. “That I didn’t think about how you could help me?”

“Exactly. You did a great job of preparing with facts and data, convincing me there was a problem, and came in with a good solution that aligned with my priorities. You just didn’t think through what you needed me to do to help you. It’s my job to make sure you have what you need to do your job. If you don’t ask me to help you, you’re not letting me do my job. Does this make sense?”

“It does,” Caleb said.

“OK, now how about you put together your asks and we go through them tomorrow?”

“I will, thanks Lori.”

“Good work, Caleb. Can you send Radhika in on your way out?”

“Sure will. See you tomorrow.”

Tollgate 5: I get what you expect me to do

Getting agreement on a course of action is a huge win; to close the deal you need to be specific on what you expect the exec to do. This could be a simple, “Give me approval to proceed on the course of action.” It could also include garnering support from other executives, publicly expressing support of your course of action, or other steps. Whatever your asks are, make sure they’re specific and direct. Being wishy-washy means your exec may not do what you expect of him.

There are two considerations I’d like to highlight in this tollgate. First, make things easy on the exec by doing what you can to help with any asks. Want the exec to send an email to someone? Ghost-write the email. It not only makes things easier, but it ensures the exec says what you want. Second, be diligent on any follow-ups you are asked to do. You’d be sending a poor message if the exec asked you to do something and you weren’t timely in your response or even worse, didn’t do it at all. This could be a huge credibility hit and cause tollgate 1 problems next time you sell up.

~~~~~

We’ve gone through all five tollgates:

In wrapping up this series I’d like to leave you with a few helpful tips next time you have to sell up:

  • Make sure you structure your content to address each tollgate in sequence. If you haven’t passed tollgate 1, your likelihood of making it through the remaining tollgates is drastically reduced. Build your pitch around each tollgate in sequence.
  • Make your words count. More content isn’t better. Get your point across in as little content as possible.
  • Be manic about watching your exec’s reactions. If your exec is signaling understanding and you’re getting the desired result for a tollgate, move on to the next tollgate. I’ve had plenty of pitches where I’ve glossed over content because the exec was already on board with what I was presenting in a tollgate. The most important thing is to get what you want, not to showcase everything you’ve prepared.
  • Remember absolute vs. relative priorities. Just because an exec says, “Not now,” it doesn’t mean the exec is an idiot or that you’ve failed. Accept that timing might not always be on your side.
  • Structure content for time allotted and have a plan if that allotment changes. Plenty of times I thought I had an hour to pitch an idea only to have the exec tell me I only had 30 minutes. Anticipate what you’ll do in the event your time gets cut short.
Posted on: October 08, 2021 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)
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