The Project Notebook

Transition and Succession Planning for Project Managers

© 2013 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP

 

You arrive at work on Monday morning and find that your key software engineer did not show up.  You subsequently learn that he was arrested over the weekend for tax evasion for the past 8 years.  The week is tense and you hope you will get your key engineer back – after all, he should be able to make bail and get out of jail.

So he makes bail and returns for a week.  The following Monday he’s gone again.  This time you learn he fled to another country seeking asylum and abandoning his wife and children to avoid prosecution.  Looks like the key engineer won’t ever be available again! Your other engineers tell you he single handedly designed 60%+ of the system and they don’t really know what or how he did it. It’s going to take them months to figure it out.

This example was taken from a real-life. Project failure was imminent as several other major risks became issues.  What’s more, the failure led to a chain of events that effectively put the company involved out of business.

Compounding the issue is the low ranking resource risks typically get on projects.  Yet underlying almost every risk is the element of human behavior. And availability of required skills and talent accounts for a large portion of the human resources risks.  How can this be avoided?

The answer is transition and succession planning.  This human resources process, like budgeting, is often not a direct responsibility for the project manager.  As with budgeting, good project managers that want to deliver quality projects on time will keep an eye on the process.  This is especially important for longer, more complex projects.

Outside of the project environment, this might go by several names such as business continuity planning or professional development.  The key ideas are the same: you want the right people on your project, you want to be sure they are not irreplaceable, and you want to make sure that if a new resource comes on board, they hit the ground running.

The first step is to be sure your project team has clear roles and responsibilities.  For large complex projects, these need to be in writing and more detailed than a simple job description. Having this information is key to effective transition and succession planning.

Transition Planning

Think of transition planning as the on-boarding and exit process for your project team members. When a team member exits for any reason, you generally want to:

  • Make sure you understand the skills that need to be replaced
  • Understand the status of the work in progress and promised deliverables that need to be fulfilled
  • Discuss with the individual how their role may have changed over time
  • Update the roles and responsibilities as necessary
  • Collect any company property (these items should be on a checklist)
  • Get access to any passwords, codes, etc. (these items should be on a checklist as well) that may be needed to carry on work and have the remainder changed or deactivated
  • Depending on company customs, organize a departure gathering or celebration

Depending on how your company operates, you may or may not have an opportunity to participate in the hire or assignment of a new team member.  But when that new team member comes on board, you need to be able to:

  • Introduce them to the team; be sure they become an integral part of the team quickly
  • Describe their actual roles and responsibilities
  • Organize any training or professional development they may need to come up to speed
  • Be sure they have all the tools they need to perform their work (e.g. laptops, application access)
  • Set expectations for initial deliverables and timelines

Smooth transitions, along with scheduling techniques such as crashing (adding more resources) and fast tracking (doing more work in parallel) will help assure the timely and efficient delivery of your project.

Succession Planning

While succession planning at a corporate level can be complex, I like to think of the project version as having only two processes – talent evaluation and talent development. Let’s look at each of these individually.

Talent Evaluation

For project managers, this should not be your standard HR performance review, which can often be based on subjective measures.  The best measure to keep your project on track is based on deliverables.  For each role and responsibility on the project, you expect certain tasks to be completed.  Develop a check list of these tasks and check them off.

In the process, you should observe what other tasks the individual you are evaluating may be capable of completing.  Once a quarter, it will be helpful to sit down with each team member and discuss:

  • Your vision for the future of the project
  • Other roles this individual might be interested in exploring
  • What they hope to gain from the work
  •  Tasks they might complete to grow their capabilities

Completion of talent evaluation (and the identification of talents to develop, will lead you to the next step of the process.

Talent Development

To me, this is the best part of the job.  No matter what industry you work in or what type of work is performed, I’ve always noticed that the real high performing teams address the “what’s in it for me” question with personal and professional development.

As the project progresses, watch for opportunities to shift assignments that may build talents and satisfy needs. As new skills are required for successful project completion, consider carefully who will get that training.  And hopefully, you will network with other project and program managers in the company to see where opportunities for your team may lie.

As a related matter, also ask what roadblocks you can remove and make them more productive.

At one point in my career, I was faced with the challenge of managing a group that was perceived to be underperforming, unmotivated, and a major obstacle in the engineering process.  In less than a year, I was able to affect a complete turnaround, building a highly effective work team and culture, by the following:

  • Identifying roles and responsibilities
  • Identifying key behavioral ground rules for internal and external interactions
  • Forming a team vision with the help of the team
  • Reigning in chaos, but not to the point where innovation was stifled
  • Letting the team know their promotion was a goal
  • Identifying and removing road blocks and speed bumps (inefficiencies)
  • Providing essential professional development opportunities
  • Building work objectives that grew both the individual and the team
  • Cross-training the team – every critical skill had a backup

In less than a year:

  • Team efficiency increased many times, and it was noticed by those we worked with
  • Multiple cost savings were identified and enacted
  • One individual was promoted to another group
  • Everyone loved to come to work every day

References:

PMBOK® Guide, Fifth Edition; PMI 2013
A Diagnostic Approach to Organizational Behavior (Fourth Edition); Gordon; Allyn and Bacon 1993
Identifying & Managing Project Risk (2nd Edition); Kendrick; AMACOM 2009

 

About the Author:

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at RayF123@aol.com.

A Plan for Success OR A Recipe for Failure?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 This article focuses on factors that need to be addressed early in the project life cycle in order to avoid later problems.  Many times, these critical considerations are either overlooked or deferred.  If an issue seems particularly loaded with political maneuvering and ramifications, someone is bound to say, “We can worry about that later”.  Typically, the project manager will be the one who then has to deal with the deferred issues, which always get worse over time.  Let’s look at a few of those considerations that need to be addressed “now” rather than “later”.

Executive Support

Generally, a least a few senior people in an organization can be persuaded to appear at a “kickoff” event, say a few words, and then depart.  The “troops”, who have been through this scenario many times, are then left wondering if they will ever see these people again during the project.  Executive support comes in many forms, so an astute project manager defines what types of support and timing are necessary to provide the true demonstration of belief in the project.  Appearance at kickoff sessions is valuable, but both the team and all people who will ultimately be impacted by the project implementation need to see executives at important points in the project’s progress.  Examples of executive support include visible recognition of completion of interim project deliverables, occasional appearances at team meetings, and reinforcement of project goals with middle management personnel.  When a project manager guides executives through the types of support that are needed, he/she also ensures that the executives will not engage in activities that could actually harm a project.

“We Don’t Need Goals — We Need Solutions”

Goal setting is viewed by some as a real waste of time, particularly if a project has an aggressive timetable.  “We’ve all agreed on the solution, so we must agree on the goals” is a common statement made to cover the fact that there is actually much hidden discord.  Early in a project the “solution” is often framed in vague terms that lead to multiple interpretations.  For example, an organization may undertake a project to build a new corporate headquarters.  While the “solution” is a building, there are many types of structures that could conceivably fulfill that definition.  The goal that the organization really has to determine at the beginning of the initiation phase is “What do we want to accomplish with a corporate headquarters?”  Depending on the goals that are defined, the actual solution could range from not building anything to building a multi-million dollar “state-of-the-art” facility.  A common statement is “the devil is in the details”.  That statement really highlights that people have not agreed on the goals, so they will never be able to agree on the means (“the details”) to achieve disparate, undefined goals.

“Somehow Everything Will Get Done”

Project managers often are coerced to accept unrealistic project schedules, inadequate personnel, and/or insufficient budget.  They grimly dive into these types of projects knowing that the outcomes will not meet expectations.  Yet they feel that somehow miracles will happen.  If a project manager perceives that one or more of the three constraints (time, budget, and quality) is not being adequately addressed at project initiation, he/she needs to determine how the constraints can be modified upfront.  Once a project is underway, there is a perception that the constraints are not issues.  A project manager is in a far better position to address the constraints in the initiation phase with solutions than to march bravely into defeat knowing that the obstacles are insurmountable.  Upfront negotiation beats last minute wailing every time.

The bottom line to these examples is that project problems identified early in the life cycle don’t “go away”.  They need to be addressed proactively, or they will explode at some unforeseen point later in the project.

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 advisory committee.  She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Building Trust One Day at a Time

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.

Many project managers face a challenge to build trust among the project’s stakeholders, including the team. Some project managers probably have “scars” caused by addressing challenges during a project that would otherwise be ignored, such as inferior vendor quality, project sabotage, and stifling politics. However, in an era where all actions are subject to intense scrutiny, it can be difficult to gain the trust of others.

One of the biggest hurdles in building trust is that many stakeholders expect that project managers are dishonest. In fact, some stakeholders may “set themselves up” for dishonesty. Let’s take a common example. As a part of the planning process, the project manager and the stakeholders construct a Gantt chart. An optimum timeline includes specific tangible deliverables throughout the project along with assigned resources and estimates of elapsed time. While some negotiation is to be expected between the project manager and the stakeholders with regard to total project time, the project manager often will be firmly pressured to reduce the overall time and to ignore critical schedule factors. A project manager who stands steadfast in defending the schedule may be told “If you can’t get this done in the time that we specify, we’ll find someone who will”. Faced with such a threat, a project manager may be tempted to acquiesce to the stakeholders’ demands. When the project actually completes later than the stakeholders insisted, the project manager is accused of “lying” and incurs a negative “trust rating”.

A second hurdle that a project manager may face is that the stakeholders may have had bad experiences with previous project managers. At one time I reported to a manager who liked to “hover” over all of her assigned project managers. Unable to operate effectively in this type of environment, I conducted some research on her previous employees. I learned that she had been “blindsided” on more than one occasion by subordinates who waited until the last minute to inform her of project problems. Thus, her solution was to remain “on top of” every project by constantly touching base with the project managers. I countered her practice by proactively updating her with an emphasis on progress and accomplishments. On the rare occasions that potential problems surfaced, I made certain to have a solution and to provide adequate time for discussion. Ultimately, the manager “backed off” her previous constant surveillance of my projects (but not those of other project managers).

Taking the “high road” to build trust is not easy. It means being able to defend unpopular decisions that have been made for the ultimate good of the project as opposed to satisfying only one stakeholder. It means that project managers must realize that they are highly visible in their leadership roles. Fulfilling promises that are made is crucial. Conversely, promises that cannot be fulfilled should be avoided. At one time I worked with another project manager whose answer to every request was “I’ll look into it”. He operated under the premise that stakeholders would quickly forget their requests. Instead, as stakeholders realized that no action was ever taken on requests, they lost confidence in this project manager, hounded him to resurrect their requests, and ultimately escalated their concerns.

Educating stakeholders is important in fostering their mindsets for understanding why they won’t always “hear what they want to hear” from a project manager. Explaining why a project must take more time, money and/or other resources in terms that stakeholders can understand goes a long way in promoting a shared sense of responsibility for positive project outcomes. Once the “us vs. them” mentality is eliminated, there is less focus on placing blame and more emphasis on teamwork among all who have a vested interest in a project. The project manager needs to continually reinforce an atmosphere of trust by not making “side deals” or avoiding conflict with the hope that it will pass.

A project manager’s actions are ultimately the most visible method that build or destroy trust. It can be disconcerting to realize that one is constantly “under a microscope”. However, it’s a project manager’s role to build and foster trust both for him/herself as well as for the project. Once the stakeholders put trust in a project manager, the project manager’s “trust building” responsibility becomes more of a maintenance effort and less of an uphill battle.

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.

Just for Today

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It’s that time of year when so many of us contemplate a “fresh start” for a better life personally and professionally. Making New Year’s resolutions is often a part of starting this process. However, statistics indicate that few resolutions are still in force by the end of January. One reason for the demise of so many well-intentioned goals is that it seems impossible to maintain challenging resolutions for the rest of our lives. Some “experts” advocate shortening the time perspective by focusing on keeping the resolution “just for today”. Project managers can also become overwhelmed by the thought of having to sustain efforts for the entire length of a project. Let’s look at some possibilities for applying “just for today” to project management challenges.

Just for today. . . I will have the courage and the intestinal fortitude:

 To not accept that a project has to be underfunded
I will use relevant terms and concerns that make the project sponsor realize the true impacts of taking the lowest bid or cutting corners at every step. Sponsors may not comprehend earned value analysis, dependencies or any of a number of common project management terms. However, “decreased net sales revenue”, “lack of customer confidence”, and other specifically business-related phrases are more apt to grab the attention of sponsors. I will also rise to the challenge of finding creative (and legal) sources of additional funding so that the sponsor appreciates the seriousness of my budgetary concerns.

To get to the source of unrealistic completion dates
I will uncover what force is driving the project implementation date. I will also work with the client, customer, and/or user to determine what really needs to be done by the target completion date. Using education regarding tradeoffs will assist in setting realistic expectations. I will remind myself that these people have probably always been told at the beginning of the project that the target date is “doable”. They don’t make the connection that an upfront “yes” is often followed by a backend “we need a little more time”.

To focus on needs not wants
I will ask questions that cause the client, customer, and/or user to dig deep beyond the surface symptoms to get at the real problem or opportunity. At that point we can all focus effectively on addressing the actual issues rather than spinning off on tangents that will hinder project performance. I will also identify relevant measures of success that are meaningful to the project sponsor.

Let’s not forget the project manager’s need for a “just for today” assessment:

 Just for today . . . I will focus on the strengths that make me a good project manager. I will think about the many good things that have happened on the projects that I have managed. After all, there are always plenty of people who are willing to criticize but few who are willing to praise.

May all of your 2012 projects be successful . . . and if not, remember the upbeat thought of the “Gone With the Wind” heroine, Scarlet O’Hara, . . . “tomorrow is another day!”

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