Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ 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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Messenger or Manager

***Colleagues: I'm experimenting with a new blogging format to more effectively give you insightful | concise | direct nuggets. I'm calling it the BTL (Building Thriving Leaders) BriefBlog. Be honest with me; would love to know what you think!


Messenger or Manager: A BTL BriefBlog Episode

The Scenario: The project manager is providing a weekly status report to the project sponsor

  • PM: The vendor told me yesterday they will miss their delivery date by a month.
  • Sponsor: Just a month ago I gave you the money you asked for to get the project done. What's the issue?
  • PM: The vendor is telling me it's more complex than they thought. They can't deliver.
  • Sponsor: What??? I gave you what you asked for and now you're telling me they can't get it done?
  • PM: That's what they're telling me.
  • Sponsor: What are you doing about it?
  • PM: Well, we have a weekly status meeting and will discuss again next week.
  • Sponsor: Have you escalated to their management?
  • PM: No.
  • Sponsor: So you're telling me that we just have to accept it?
  • PM: Well, I can try talking to them again.
  • Sponsor: Get them on a call, and include me.
  • PM: Ok.
  • Sponsor (thinking to himself about the PM): Delivers bad news, no plan to address, I thought he was a PM; he's just a messenger.

The Message: It's good to provide early warning to potential issues, but it’s bad when you don’t provide the next steps you're taking or what help you need. This labels you as a messenger rather than the manager you’re expected to be.

The Consequence: Issues without next actions or asks gives the impression you're not taking ownership of the issue and you're expecting someone else to manage through it.

The Take-Away: Don't be an issue messenger. Define the issue, articulate what next steps are, and be clear on what and when you expect others to do to help squash the issue.

Posted on: March 08, 2022 11:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Align on the What, Advise on the How










Colleagues: I originally wrote this article for board members and their interactions with executive teams. The parallels apply to a leader-follower relationship so decided to publish the article as-is and give you some nuggets that you can apply to your leadership journey.

Pat hated giving board updates. As the head of integration of a recent acquisition, Pat was required to provide monthly updates on the integration to the board. There was one board member, Cary, who focused on how the integration project was being done, questioning Pat on initiative processes, minor deliverables, and detailed assignments. Cary was experienced in acquisition integration and spoke from a position of authority, but Pat was also an experienced professional with six successful integration projects completed. Because of Cary’s experience and strong personality, the board chair permitted Cary to deep-dive on minutiae. Pat’s frustration with being micro-managed boiled over to the rest of the executive team, creating a tone of distrust between the board and executive team. Pat’s updates became less and less transparent, with Pat reasoning that more information was only fodder for Cary’s drilling. The integration project ultimately was completed, but the trust relationship between the board and executive team was significantly eroded.

Boards are filled with experience and wisdom. Its members know, through success and failure, how to get things done, the pitfalls to avoid, and not to touch a hot stove. Their insight is crucial to the success of an organization. That insight, though, doesn’t mean a board and its members have license to over-function with its CEO and executive team. Unchecked, a CEO and executive team can feel micro-managed due to being told not only what should be done, but how it should be done. Being overly prescriptive on the how is a material pain point in the board/executive team trust relationship.

Being clear about defining and understanding the what/how roles and accountabilities is crucial to a healthy, functioning board/executive team relationship. When done well, the executive team is able to execute without disruptive oversight, and the board members are transparently and satisfactorily informed about key initiatives. When done poorly, nervous board members, with the best of intention, can actually disrupt work through increased updates, shadow management, and unsolicited advice on how to get things done. I call this behavior “love-bombing.” When an executive’s confidence is shaken on a key initiative for which he or she is accountable, the exec will tend to increase his or her involvement in the initiative, requesting more frequent updates and deeper dives on issues, looking for ways he or she can help. In an effort to be helpful, the exec actually creates more work for the initiative leader and team to calm the exec’s nervousness. It’s no different with a board. The board will want to help and offer its collective experience, but in the process can delve too much into the how, putting a strain on the board/executive team trust relationship.

Managing and controlling the what and how relationship between the board and executive team falls squarely on the CEO and board chair to clearly articulate the what/how relationship and set the tone with its board members to align on the what and advise on the how. To help establish a fruitful what/how relationship the chair and CEO should employ these actions:

  1. Set what/how expectations with the board – The board chair and CEO have to set the tone with the rest of the board on the board’s place in what/how alignment. Being purposeful about the distinction not only sets expectations with the board, CEO, and executive team but also serves as a good reminder when a board member over-reaches. Both the CEO and board chair have the responsibility to ensure alignment is in place and call a time-out when discussions get in the weeds.
  2. Get crisp on what “done” looks like – For an initiative which will include regular board updates, ensure there is a clear understanding of what needs to be done, why it’s being done, when it’s to be done by, and who’s accountable for getting it done. Having a good grasp and concurrence of what, why, when, and who helps board members stay in their lane and focus on results.
  3. Be deliberate with initiative updates – “Going dark” on initiative progress on what, why, when and who breeds nervousness among board members and can instigate board members delving into how things should be done. Provide a regular initiative status and proactively realign what, why, when and who if necessary.
  4. Solicit advice then decide what to do with it – Boards generally have a great cross-section of experience and wisdom to contribute, and it would be foolish for a CEO and executive team to not tap into that experience. Be thoughtful about soliciting advice, then decide if the advice makes sense to implement given the full context of the initiative. 
  5. Use committees to do deeper dives and help on the how – Depending on the initiative it may make sense to leverage one or more board members to advise on a deeper level to better ensure initiative success. The CEO and board chair should assess whether a board committee is necessary, then be thoughtful on its setup and review rhythm.
  6. Don’t put an initiative at legal, regulatory, or compliance risk – A key function of a board is to help an organization identify, assess, and mitigate risk. Board members should continue to be on the lookout for legal, regulatory or compliance risks and speak up when one is identified, even if it delves into how an initiative is done. The board chair and CEO should clearly set this expectation with the rest of the board and executive team.
  7. Break the rule in extraordinary situations – There may be some situations, i.e. material strategy misalignment or CEO performance issues, where broader deeper dives are necessary for the sake of the organization. The board chair should make those calls and deliberately drive those discussions.

Trust is crucial to a healthy board/executive team relationship. A key driver of trust is clear articulation of the what/how accord and where the board and its members need to function. Be proactive in defining it and holding both the board and executive team accountable in the relationship.

Posted on: December 24, 2021 10:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

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 (10)

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 (10)

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 (5)