The Project Notebook

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.

“Taking a Break” Doesn’t Mean Delaying the Project

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.

It’s that time of year when many people realize that summer is drawing to an end and with it the opportunity to take a well-deserved vacation. With project schedules generally tight and overly optimistic, project managers may find themselves tempted to ask their teams to defer vacations until some “magical” future time when there is slack in the schedule. Since slack never seems to materialize, a project manager may find that all the deferred vacations come due at the same time to avoid a company mandate to “use it or lose it”. Then the project manager is in a worse bind. Team members who have sacrificed their optimum vacation times are now at the point of total burnout and do not want to hear that “only one of you can be gone at a time”. However, a little advance planning can allow vacations when people want to take them without delaying the project or causing deliverables to be negatively impacted.

When project managers develop the initial project plan, the vacation schedules of team members need to be considered. Some organizations provide a combined “personal” time allowance that can be used for vacation, illness, or other personal activities. Developing a master vacation schedule identifies not only those times when there could be major impact on deliverables but also if there are periods when several team members will be gone. Overlaying this master vacation schedule on the project plan will highlight any potential problem areas.

Suppose that there are multiple timeframes when several team members plan to be gone. There are many options that a project manager has. If the team reports to the project manager, he/she can talk with the team to emphasize the need to re-structure vacation timing. The project manager should emphasize what has been done to accommodate the majority of planned vacations. Asking the team to work out the schedule themselves is often effective. Only if the team reaches an impasse should the project manager play a role in determining final scheduling. If the team is told that failure to reach a decision on its part will result in a more arbitrary process, there is stronger impetus to resolve any issues without project manager intervention.

A more challenging situation exists when the project team is organized in a matrix structure and does not report to the project manager. In such a situation the project manager can also ask the team to resolve its own schedule conflicts. However, if the team does not reach a resolution, the project manager must then approach the functional managers of the team members. This is definitely one time when the project goals and benefits need to be defined in the specific terms of each functional manager in order to emphasize the importance of this upfront negotiation. For example, a marketing manager may not be concerned that his/her representative’s absence will delay selection of new software. However, that same marketing manager will definitely “take notice” when informed that delay in software selection will also delay the implementation of a new management bonus plan.

Regardless of how dedicated project team members are, everyone needs a break once in a while. That principle also applies to project managers. Upfront planning for vacations can result in a more productive team that remains focused on the ultimate project goals and deliverables.

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.

Smaller is Better and More Effective

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.

It seems as if everything comes in larger and larger sizes — including projects. While a giant pizza or a super-sized drink may be refreshing, a large and complex project often seems overwhelming to all participants as well as to the project manager. This article focuses on “small” approaches to major projects.

The presence of many unknowns is one of the most challenging aspects of projects. Regardless of the sources of the unknowns — technical specifications, scientific barriers, market demand, etc. — the project manager is the one who must provide the direction and the methods to convert unknowns into knowns. This responsibility does not mean that the project manager must be the one who conducts the research necessary to solve the mysteries. Rather, the project manager must assess the strengths of the team not only in terms of specific expertise but also in terms of problem identification and solution skills. All the knowledge in the world is useless if it is applied to a symptom instead of a problem. Determining when “enough” information has been assembled is also a critical assessment. Therefore, using a few people who can identify relevant problems and quickly resolve them is more effective than having an entire team running in multiple, counterproductive directions.

Another challenge occurs when a lengthy timeframe is estimated for project completion. Virtually every project of this nature needs to use a phased approach rather than attempting to schedule all of the activities at the beginning of the project. For example, a project to develop a new drug may span many years before the drug is finally brought to market. While a project manager may be tempted to fully populate a Gantt chart with thousands of activities that culminate in product release, a more effective approach is to “plan only what you know”. This technique means that accurate time estimates can be made only for the initial phase of research. The high-level project plan should definitely have milestones and deliverables defined for the full length of the project. However, there is no point in detailed planning beyond the first phase until there are indications of success. Even then, the detailed planning should only extend to the next phase. This practice forces an organization to identify upfront the criteria for success for each phase as well as to require that projects continue to “prove themselves”.

Most large projects require large project teams. In these situations individual participants may feel that their contributions are not necessary or valued. Large project teams provide lots of opportunities for people to “hide” or even “disappear”. Meanwhile, the project manager gets hounded as to why there is not a high volume of work forthcoming from such a large number of team members. Running “lean and mean” (using a small project team) is one method to ensure that each team member has high visibility and accountability. This method is not always practical given the amount of work that may be required to complete a project. In those cases that mandate a large number of participants, a more appropriate technique is to organize the total large project team into smaller teams within the project. Each team has a leader who can be chosen by the project manager or by the team. This method may require a different approach to project planning through specifying more tangible deliverables. However, it also keeps individuals focused on near-term accomplishments with defined responsibilities. Those who choose to “hide” or to attempt to “disappear” are quickly identified before their lack of participation negatively impacts project outcomes. At that point project management mentoring, coaching, and/or disciplining can be initiated in a timely manner.

The main emphasis behind all of the techniques and practices that have been described in this article is that even “super-sized” projects need not be overwhelming for project managers. Whether it’s building an aircraft carrier, chairing a fundraiser, or cleaning the garage, “smaller is better and more effective” when it comes to project management.

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.

What Can You Expect From a Bunch of Volunteers?

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It may not seem like you’re signing up for project management when you volunteer for a board of directors or for a committee chair position. Maybe it’s your child’s parent-teacher organization, a homeowners’ association board, or a community group. However, managing volunteer activities can be one of the most challenging, rewarding, and frustrating project management assignments that you will ever have.

When a volunteer organization does not perform acceptably, someone will say, “Well, what can you expect from a bunch of volunteers?” This attitude is nothing but an excuse in disguise. At the very least, this question sets the expectation that any volunteer project must be a second-rate, half-hearted effort. Yet a great many successful projects only get accomplished because of a dedicated, competent group of volunteers. On more than one occasion, my volunteer teams and I have agreed that no one could pay us enough money to compensate us adequately for what we have volunteered to do!

So what’s a project manager to do when the team is loosely organized and can leave whenever the “going gets tough”? First of all, the team needs to determine what the target goal(s) of the effort are (sound familiar?). In a volunteer situation this effort has special challenges in that each individual has his/her own unique perspective on the situation and the desired outcomes. Therefore, it is also necessary to determine why each person volunteered to be a part of the effort. The diverse reasons for volunteering yield different attitudes toward the project as a whole and toward the “work ethic” that is exhibited. Some possible reasons why people volunteer include the following:

• Belief in the cause or role of the volunteer organization. These folks will generally work hard, but the project management challenge is to keep them focused and moving in a single direction.
• Status. The volunteer organization has a prestigious image so participation of any nature will look good on a resume. These people want “visibility”.
• Networking. These volunteers only want to associate with someone who can do something for them.
• Intimidation. Someone badgered the person into volunteering. These folks are generally “short timers”.

There are a number of considerations to address when managing a volunteer project team. Since everyone on the team has many other priorities, the tasks and deliverables should be defined as small, highly tangible efforts. Early and frequent accomplishments keep people energized even when the project is lengthy. Focused use of email and “virtual” meetings can eliminate many face-to-face meetings. When there are meetings, input should be solicited for an agenda that is circulated in advance. Of course, the agenda should be followed to avoid the volunteer “trap” of multiple tangents and non-productive meetings. It is especially critical to quickly learn each volunteer’s strengths and level of commitment. Some people sign up for everything and do nothing. Others don’t sign up at all but want to “be asked”. And then there are those rare “jewels” who sign up, do the work and bring in their deliverables on time.

I have been blessed to chair several volunteer efforts with talented people. It is to these special individuals and to those of you who do volunteer effectively that I dedicate this article.

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.

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