The Project Notebook

Proactively Managing Expectations

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

All of us have expectations in life.  Some are attainable without much effort.  Others take considerable personal effort and a huge dose of good luck.  Still others will never be realized regardless of the effort expended.  Project owners, sponsors, customers and clients are no different in the diverse degrees of reality associated with their expectations for project outcomes.  The project manager’s key to success in handling the expectations of others is to be proactive rather than waiting for an angry email, an escalated complaint, or nasty verbal abuse.

 You may be thinking, “Anyone can be proactive as long as he/she is a mind reader.”  Actually, the first step is to uncover the true goals (target accomplishments, not the solution) that each project owner, sponsor, customer and/or client has in mind.  This step may be more challenging than it sounds.  The documented goals may have been set prior to the project manager’s being assigned to the project.  In this situation the documented “goals” may actually be solutions, not true goals.  The project manager needs to ask questions that will uncover the true expectations.

 Once the true goals have been uncovered, proactive expectation management can begin.  For example, the project completion date is often hopelessly unrealistic.  While it may not be politically expedient, the project manager needs to address this expectation early in the project life cycle.  Some questions that need to be asked include these:

  • What and who are driving the completion date?
  • What really is expected to be accomplished by the stated completion date?
  • What can be deferred to a later phase?

Once the project manager has this information, he/she knows the actions to take with regard to retaining or revising the completion date.

 Education of project sponsors is also critical.  They may be used to working with project managers who always agree to their requests.  I had one project sponsor who called me and said “I have a minor change that will only take 15 minutes of your team’s time.”  He was used to project managers accepting his changes.  However, he had never been made to realize the connection between his requests and the fact that projects he sponsored were never delivered on time.  Rather than saying “no” immediately, I asked for an explanation of his request.  I then walked him through the actual time (three weeks) and resource commitment, which included the involvement of his own personnel.  I also reminded him that he was on record as saying that the completion date could not be changed.  Then I said, “What do you want to give up so that we can include this new request in the project plan?”  He laughed, and we then identified activities that could be deleted so that his request could be accommodated.  The next time that he called to request a change, he had already reviewed the plan and could tell me what work could be dropped.  I also learned that he requested far fewer changes from me than from other project managers with whom he worked.

 These are only a few examples of how project managers can manage expectations.  Proactive expectation management encompasses identifying and dealing with the cause(s) and source(s) of the expectations rather than the symptoms.

 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>.

Inspiration from a Winning Coach

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 In recent years the annual phenomenon known as “March Madness”, aka the NCAA basketball championships, has often concluded in April.  As I watch these games, I always think of my personal project manager “role model”, John Wooden.  This talented individual coached several UCLA basketball teams to NCAA championships.  His philosophy in molding diverse “project” teams into winners year after year has been my inspiration in many a project management effort.

One of the biggest challenges that project managers face is leading groups of individuals to accomplish the project goals and solutions.  In many situations project managers select or are assigned people who have specific functional and/or technical skills needed for the project activities.  These skills often are more individually based rather than team based.  This attribute means that project team members excel when allowed to work by themselves.  The down side is that the sum of individual efforts generally leads to much less than a 100% team effort.  Varying expertise levels, different approaches, previous project experiences and boundless egos combine to present project managers with a responsibility that is often defined as “herding snakes”.

So what can be learned from a winning basketball coach in order to address this project management challenge?  Every year John Wooden was presented with a new “project” team.  Some coaches who face the same situation use the “it’s my way or no way” approach.  Instead of molding each player to a predetermined strategy, Mr. Wooden focused on the “project” goal of winning games.  He assessed the talents of each of his players in light of this goal.  He then developed techniques, plays, and training dedicated to making a winning team based on the integrated strengths of the individual players.  Obviously, the players also had to be made to realize that it was more beneficial to them personally to be part of a winning team than a “star” individual on a losing team.

Let’s look at a specific project management technique that can incorporate John Wooden’s winning philosophy.  While every project has many activities that must be accomplished, it is much more effective to re-structure the work to fit the strengths of the individuals.  This effort may mean giving early small tangible deliverable assignments to each person to determine his/her true capabilities.  This technique also quickly highlights how each team member needs to be managed.  Does the person “go away” and do the assignment?  Does the person ask questions and then “go away” and do the assignment?  Or — does the person just “go away”.  By making this assessment early in the project life cycle, the project manager can readily assess strengths, opportunities for improvement and even hidden talents.

As project managers we never get all the “right” team members for a project.  However, a “winning” project manager focuses on the project goals and makes the best of what he/she is given to achieve those goals.

 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?

A Fresh Start for an Old Project

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

As we ring in a brand new year full of promise, we may feel the incentive to make resolutions to improve our lives in a variety of ways. Just as the calendar gives us an “excuse” to start anew in our personal lives, it can also give us the impetus to re-think the current projects with which we are involved. It’s easy, particularly with a lengthy project, to feel trapped in a rut. The meetings all sound alike, the progress is miniscule, and the personality conflicts abound. Or perhaps the project is progressing as planned, but people seem to be sleepwalking through their tasks. While keeping the goals of a project intact, there are some easy actions that can revitalize a ‘tired’ project.

A good place to start with a fresh approach is the actual project work to be accomplished. A quick, high-level overview of what’s progressing, what’s lagging, and what doesn’t seem to be moving at all can often pinpoint tasks that can be dropped or at least modified. Generally, at the beginning of a project there is a tendency to list every possible task in order to ensure that nothing will be missed. As the project progresses, at least some of these tasks become superfluous, redundant or meaningless. Since other tasks surface as the project progresses, the team members as well as the project manager can experience a sense of being overwhelmed. The overview can identify tasks that can be dropped, leaving everyone with a sense of relief.

A common challenge on project teams is that there is little or no “cross pollinization” among team members with regard to activities and responsibilities. The start of a new year is a good time to make some changes in who is doing what. The team can provide input with regard to new assignments so that the project manager is not faced with merely rearranging the Gantt chart resource allocations. While there are some people who would not willingly accept a different assignment even if it meant a 50% raise, the majority will welcome some change that they have controlled. New perspectives are bound to surface.

What would a project be without meetings? Now is a great time to look at the actual purpose of each scheduled periodic meeting that is connected with the project. Consider the following questions:
1) What is actually getting accomplished in each one of these meetings?
2) Are the meetings poorly attended?
3) Is the attendee list growing while the output is dwindling?
4) Are the same things being re-hashed at every session?
If the answer to #1 is “very little” or “nothing” and at least one of the remaining questions can be answered with a loud “yes”, it’s time to revamp the meeting, eliminate it or use a more effective method of communication.

Now that everyone is back from the holidays, it’s a good time to re-energize projects by capitalizing on the renewed energies of the manager and the team. A little overhauling can produce major positive results.

Best wishes for 2011!

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