The Project Notebook

Finding the “Silver Lining”

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Often a project manager and his/her team only hear criticism about the level of effectiveness of their work. It’s always easy to criticize. There are media personalities who make quite comfortable salaries filling the air waves with nasty remarks, sarcasm, and cynicism. Seldom, if ever, do these same people offer constructive, realistic solutions or even provide alternatives. After listening to so much negative chatter, we can find our own mental attitudes going sharply into a slump. The same is true for project managers and project team members who may feel that they are constantly under attack at every turn.

What can project managers do to promote a realistic sense of perspective about how projects are proceeding? The first step is to focus on the goals for the project outcomes. For example, if one of the goals was to improve the design of an existing product, what specific improvements have been achieved? If it’s early in the project and the improvements are not yet evident, perhaps there has been demonstrated progress with major customers in regard to innovative design strategies.

A second step is to recognize that many projects are lengthy. “Planning successes” in the form of small, tangible deliverables at appropriate intervals can provide positive focus for team members. This technique also aids the project manager in monitoring overall performance in order to take corrective action before major disasters occur.

Finally, it’s perfectably acceptable to let people know that progress is being made. Team members can get buried in details and deadlines. They may need to be reminded that the project is actually making strong progress. Those outside of the project also need to be informed of progress in terms that they will understand. The board of directors may not be excited that a “deliverable” has been accomplished, but they will take notice of what the project is doing to promote stockholder confidence. The project manager can translate the accomplishment of a deliverable into more understandable, non-project terms.

It is important to remember that there needs to be a balance between positive and negative project “news”. We’ve all seen projects that had much fanfare and seemingly no problems but actually ended in disaster once the clouds of euphoria disintegrated. Much has been written about the need to plan project parties and to always provide food and drink at project meetings in order to bolster morale. However, most team members recognize these tactics as superficial and meaningless if the team is not proud of the project’s progress and achievements. If there truly is little “good news” on a project, it may be time to either substantially modify the project goals and/or the approach or terminate the project before its planned completion. However, before taking such drastic measures the project manager should assess the accomplishments in contrast to the problems in order to make an informed decision.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

 

Bacon and Eggs: Commitment vs. Involvement

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

There’s an old analogy that can be applied to project participants.  In describing the efforts of the “project team” that ultimately ends in a plate of bacon and eggs, the pig is totally committed while the hen is merely involved.  Some team members come to the project with enthusiasm.   However, others figuratively “sit in the corner” with folded arms and a facial expression that seems to scream, “You may have my body but not my soul”.  This article focuses on one of the greatest challenges that a project manager faces — getting a team and other stakeholders to be totally committed to a project.

“I’m behind you — a long way behind you”

Typically, senior management will provide initial backing for major projects.  This backing may take the form of an email, a memo, a kickoff meeting, or some other method of letting people know that there is support from the top for the project.  While this effort is welcomed by project managers, the real need for executive support continues throughout the project.  The project manager not only needs to keep executives aware of progress (not status) but also needs to incorporate their ongoing visibility at critical points in the project.  Many times executives will participate if asked, especially if they are provided with the “right words to say”.

“WIIFM?”

The acronym, WIIFM, translates into “What’s in it for me?”  There are many different appropriate answers to this question, but it is not that “one size fits all”.  Team members have to feel that they are personally getting something out of project participation.  Project managers need to know their team members well enough to provide the right incentives, or this technique can incur cost without reaping desired benefits.  Some possible recommendations for incentives include the following:

  • Money — be certain that the incentive basis actually promotes effective project team behavior
  • Visibility in front of senior management
  • Promotional opportunities
  • Lunches, parties, and other events that involve food
  • Time off
  • Saying “thank you”

“I want to make a difference”

Many projects include provision for communication plans, meetings to obtain “buy-in”, and other methods to let people know what’s happening on a project.  However, there is a tendency to foster only one-way communication from the project manager to the team and other key participants.  Effective communication not only needs to be two way, it also needs to demonstrate that the communication was actually heard.  For example, if a meeting is held to allow mid-tier managers to assess elements of a strategic plan, the project manager should be certain to let those managers know how their ideas/comments were actually incorporated into the plan.

A project is only as good as the commitment of its stakeholders.  A relatively small team of committed members will always out-perform a horde of members who are merely involved.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout theUnited States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in theUniversity ofCalifornia,San   Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Information Pollution

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

As project managers we are expected to be able to process a great deal of information from a variety of sources.  Some might say that the explosion of email as a communication medium has increased the volume of information exponentially but has drastically decreased the quality.  Project managers can find themselves drowning in a sea of useless information while not being able to obtain the few “jewels” of information necessary to ensure project success.  Some “information management” tools to assist in “keeping afloat” include templates, filters and categories.

Templates

Sometimes the information overload issue centers on unnecessary data.  Progress and problems need to be monitored, but “status” does not.  Status reports waste time and energy that can be better channeled into proactive project activities.  It can be effective to provide a template of what information is really needed.  For example, progress reports can include the following:  1) progress against deliverables; 2) issues with recommended resolution strategies; 3) actions on outstanding items.  These items not only provide the necessary information, but they also emphasize adherence to the project plan, team responsibility and accountability, as well as reduction of project manager information overload.

Filters

I recently attended a client meeting in which a fair amount of extraneous data was discussed.  One of the participants asked me how I kept it all sorted.  I replied that I archived such items on my “mental hard drive”.  That response meant that while I did not completely discard the data, I relegated it to a lesser level of importance and accessibility.  There are often software filters built into email programs that can automatically  perform the same function.  The user sets the parameters, and the filters, also known as “intelligent agents”, take care of the review and storage or deletion.

Categories

One technique that can be of value in sorting through the deluge of communications is to develop categories that allow management of information.  For example, every project manager knows that information regarding budget, schedule, and performance is of utmost importance.  However, every item that mentions one or more of those three components is not necessarily critical.  Identify what you really need to know and what source(s) can provide that information.  Focus on the most effective formats, such as exception rather than full detailed reports.  Re-think the parameters that are being used to determine the critical activities and variances that need to be monitored.

Reducing information overload also includes being an effective communicator. People are much more apt to read short emails, memos, and reports than lengthy ones.  It takes discipline to refine communications so that only the critical points are included.  However, the outcome — that people actually read what you write — far outweighs the effort to frame your communications in concise formats.

 

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

What’s in Your Management Planning Meeting?

Planning

What's in Your Planning Meeting?

Did you meet all your expected business outcomes in 2010? Were you “promise keepers” that made “raving fans” of your clients and other stakeholders? If not, perhaps one agenda item for 01/01/2011 should be a review of your management planning meetings. How are they conducted? What is the agenda? What are the desired outcomes? Are these status and “look back” meetings? Or forward looking planning meetings?

Let’s take a quick look at the words and see what they tell us about what the meeting should be. We’ve all heard the quote about management being about doing things right (vs. leadership as doing the right things). Is there an emphasis in your meeting about doing things right? Planning implies a forward look at the business outcomes and the resources, time lines, and budgets which will be applied to achieve them. These definitions set the stage for consideration of how your management planning meeting might be reshaped. As Stephen Covey says in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind.” The meeting purpose (Management Planning) should determine the focus and the agenda.

Status and “look back” are important. Where you have been should at least have some consideration in where you are going next. But status and look back shouldn’t consume the entire meeting. I can’t say I can tell you a percentage, however one way of reducing this to zero is by having short (no more than a half page) written status reports that are shared with your Board or other senior leader colleagues in advance of the planning meeting. The status updates should be shared at least a day or two before the planning meeting so issues can be considered while forming forward looking strategies.

That allows the management planning meeting to have a forward looking agenda. It would be appropriate for each department to state the objectives and outcomes they plan to meet in the coming week(s). Special emphasis should be given to collaborative or cooperative needs. That gives everyone a chance to have a voice and discuss any resourcing or budgeting issues which may arise. There is not just a focus on planning, but on problem solving.

The other important ingredient of your Management Planning Meeting is that all the required participants be present. This should be set aside as a sacred time so that critical decision makers and those required to solve problems will be present. If everyone cannot be there, then in most cases the meeting should be postponed to avoid improperly considered decisions. Not finding a time when this is possible? Then the agenda of your first planning meeting in 2011 should be to solve the problem of making this possible.

Don’t be shy about providing meeting pre-work. Pre-work isn’t about passing out the PowerPoints so that the meeting just rehashes them. Its about providing background documentation and information for the decisions that must be made and the problems to solve. This will help participants to be prepared to more effectively meet the goals of the meeting.

During the meeting, a volunteer or appointed scribe should take notes on the actions and outcomes agreed to. A five minute debrief will allow the scribe to read back the notes and actions for accuracy. The meeting should close with a quick check on the meeting progress and what, if anything, should be modified to make the next meeting more effective.

Your effective use of meeting time will build enthusiasm and commitment — two of the essential ingredients of building a high performing team. The well planned and faciliated meeting promotes better follow up and follow through, and set the stage for the meeting results needed to improve execution and ability to meet the planned outcomes. Well planned and implemented meetings will yield achievable and predicatable results going forward. Isn’t this, after all, what you really set out to accomplish?

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP