The Project Notebook

It Isn’t Easy Being the Only One Who Is Focused

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 of the author.

The practice of jumping from one activity to another or worse yet engaging in frantic multitasking can be all too common in project management. It is the project manager who must maintain stability and sanity as project participants and sponsors fly off on diverse paths in attempting to achieve the goals of the project. The following article provides some project management strategies for maintaining focus in the midst of chaos.

Establishing and maintaining focus starts at the very inception of the project concept. There is often much talk about specific solutions or outcomes and “drop dead” dates. All of this conversation takes place in an euphoric atmosphere in which no problems could ever materialize, and no risks could ever be present. According to the project participants, it’s the role of the project manager to make certain that nobody else has to deal with problems and that no other person has to face a risk that manifests itself. It is during this initiation phase that the project manager must establish him/herself as the “voice of reason” to guide people toward specific definition of goals. The project goals are not to be confused with the actual solutions or outcomes. The goals need to be specific targets for accomplishments, such as “to increase market share by 50%” or “to overcome a technology barrier”. A project without goals will never achieve focus and will have no measures of success.

Assuming that the project manager is able to persuade project participants to define and agree on specific goals, the challenge then becomes reinforcing those goals throughout the project. It is easy to set aside goals during the planning phase in the rush to obtain resources and funding. However, the goals are the actual criteria that determine who should work on the project, the amount of money that should be allocated for deliverables, and the timeframe that should be defined.

As the project execution begins, the real threats to a project’s focus arise. Marathon meetings, email flurries and informal conversations can erode the focus of a project. People need something tangible to “hold on to” in order to remain focused. Requiring completion of frequent physical deliverables assists in preserving a sense of accomplishment. When the inevitable change requests occur, the project manager needs to correlate these requests with the project goals and to remind requestors of the goals in a variety of methods. Sometimes all it takes is providing meeting participants with a page that briefly outlines the goals. If the meeting discussion shows signs of drifting, the project manager can quickly re-focus the session by referencing this outline.

As mentioned earlier in this article, project goals are the basis for focus and for determination of success. An astute project manager knows that he/she can achieve success only if there is an actual target. Otherwise, he/she is at the mercy of a multitude of individuals who each employ a unique rating system weighted heavily toward “0” rather than “10”.

 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.

Predicting the Future: A Thankless Job

 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 of the author.

There probably aren’t any job descriptions for project manager positions that contain the requirement “Must possess keen ability to accurately predict the future”. However, that skill is necessary in order to be an effective project manager who is both proactive in averting project disasters, and who plans contingencies wisely. Those who possess this skill may not realize that it is employed in a variety of situations. I had an information technology project student who was embroiled in a highly controversial system development effort for his company. One evening after class he told me that he was being summoned the next morning to a high-level meeting regarding his project. Without even thinking, I said to him, ” I bet that they’re planning to move up the completion date”. My voicemail messages the next day included one from this student. His message said, “How did you know? They did exactly what you said that they would do!” He subsequently told other students in his class as well as those enrolled in future project classes that they should ask me if they ever wanted to know in advance what would happen on their projects. There actually are advance indicators of future events that project managers can recognize. This article discusses a few of those early warning signals.

“Reading the tea leaves”

One of my clients often talks about people who can “read the tea leaves”. By this statement she means that people look at what’s in front of them and recognize deeper meanings. For example, it may be easy to ignore internal organizational conditions that are external to a project. After all, a company’s inability to meet customer deliveries on time and within budget may not appear relevant to a project manager who is assessing the feasibility for a new information system. When it comes time to actually recommend a solution, a proactive project manager will have identified both the optimum recommendation as well as a “fallback” alternative recommendation. Obviously, the alternative will not be as effective as the optimum solution. However, by “reading the tea leaves” in advance and having an alternative, the project manager will be spared the devastation of having his/her optimum recommendation ripped to pieces by senior managers who are focused on the company’s overall declining financial position due to loss of sales.

Ignoring reality

So many project plans are developed without allowing for any problems or deviations. These plans are based on consistent availability of talented resources, all of whom have no other company responsibilities except to work on one project. Another fallacy that is often applied in project planning is that there is adequate time to complete every activity entirely as planned. While the project sponsor may insist that there be no slack time nor contingency planning for common project challenges, an “omniscient” project manager knows that the plan has to provide for situations that commonly occur. For example, even if specific resources are fully allocated to a single project, there is a high probability that there will be absences. Illness, vacations, and company-sponsored training are all common situations that impact even the most committed of resources. Failure to take these occurrences into account in the project plan can only lead to late project completion.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Ben Franklin)

Reviewing other projects, even if they are dissimilar, can be of assistance in determining what issues have a high probability for reoccurrence. An example of the need for this review occurs when an organization has a practice of continually shifting people from one project team to another. A “forward thinking” project manager will address this condition in the planning and executing phases. Activities and tasks can be defined in smaller timeframes. Cross-training can be included for critical activities. In this manner the loss of personnel is minimized since the work is being completed in smaller increments. Also, the loss of a key team member can be less devastating since there is a backup person in place to continue critical assignments.

Few people outside of other project managers will praise or reward those who can “predict the future” and can successfully plan for it. However, it’s a skill that needs to be a part of an effective project manager’s skill set. As you polish your crystal ball and rearrange the tea leaves, may you be able to deal positively with the challenges of 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 is a Faculty Scholar and Certified Advanced Facilitator at the University of Phoenix. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

The Perils of Being a Good Project Manager

 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 of the author.

What could possibly be wrong with being a good project manager? Project managers often take courses to continue to improve their project management skills. They may observe other project managers in order to determine what works and what does not work in successfully managing projects. The following article addresses some of the challenges when projects actually do finish on time, on budget, and meet performance criteria.

“This Can’t Be True”

Sometimes project stakeholders, even the project sponsor, do not want the project to succeed. I was involved in a situation in which the top executive of an organization had reluctantly agreed to initiate a major project that would impact the entire company. However, he never missed an opportunity to question positive reports about the project’s progress. Recognizing his strong inclination to undermine the project, I led off a steering committee meeting by saying that the project was meeting its goals and was on time and on budget. This executive grumbled, “If that’s true, it’s the only project in the company that is on track”. He then proceeded to pick at every statement that was made to see if there were any miniscule areas that had problems. While it was not a comfortable situation, I reminded myself that he really wanted the project to fail and that his doubts would continue throughout the project. Fortunately, the other key people in the organization knew that the project was critical to the growth of the company and did everything that they could to ensure the success of the project. I met separately with those individuals on a continuing basis to address the actions that needed to be taken to overcome the negative attitude of the sponsor.

“You Won’t Mind Losing A Few People, Dollars, Etc.”

For some unexplained reason organizations may feel that a project that is proceeding successfully is “fair game” to be “raided”. By this statement I mean that a good project manager may find that his/her project is subject to losing people, budget, or other project resources. Sadly, some project managers operate perpetually in a crisis mode. They are always out of money, need more people, or are faced with “insurmountable” obstacles. Rather than recognizing that these individuals are poor project managers that should be removed from the projects, some organizations rally to the cause of these people. Project managers whose projects are progressing successfully may have requests to transfer key people from their teams to these struggling projects. They may have to defend keeping their assigned budget rather than “baling out” mismanaged projects. In these types of situations it is crucial to have strong justification for all planned resources in order to fend off panic raiding of successful projects.

“We Never Hear Anything About Your Project”

At one point in my career I managed several successful projects for an organization in which other projects were perpetually behind schedule, over budget and never met expectations. Shortly before I left this organization for a more positive environment, another project manager said to me, “We never heard anything about your projects”. She continued by explaining that my projects did not have angry people and that the projects concluded on time and within budget. Therefore, she said that no one ever “made a fuss” about the projects. I had to agree that while my projects had major visibility, they were never subject to scrutiny due to negative outcomes. I often felt that it was a source of embarrassment to the organization that projects could be effectively managed. For years the prevailing attitude had been that no project could possibly succeed. Once it had been demonstrated that projects could be well managed, this organization could not accept success.

In conclusion, good project managers cannot be complacent. While it would appear that successful project management should be a treasured target accomplishment, there are always those people who cannot fathom that projects can actually accomplish what they are intended to do. After all, various sources state that as many as 60% to more than 80% of all projects fail. Therefore, when a project succeeds, it must be a “fluke” or “something must be wrong”. Good project managers must be proactive in addressing threats to their project’s success.

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 is a Faculty Scholar and Certified Advanced Facilitator at the University of Phoenix. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Should I Be a Project Manager When I Grow Up?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 Whether early in a career or when contemplating a career change, you may wonder if you should pursue project management as a career path.  You probably have already managed projects even if your job title did not reflect that responsibility.  For example, did your manager ask you to “fix” something?  The “fixing” may have involved figuring out the problem, asking others for assistance, and providing a solution to the problem.  In your personal life you have certainly managed projects.  So — you already have some project management experience.  Now the decision is whether you consciously want to pursue project management.

 Skills and Self-Assessment

It is not difficult to identify the skills needed to become a project manager.  A partial list of some of the most critical skills includes the following:

  • Leadership
  • Communication with all levels and respect from all levels
  • Organization, planning and administration
  • Team building
  • Conflict resolution
  • Resource allocation

We could also add some less definable capabilities such as “ability to predict the future”, “being able to do more with nothing”, and “keeping one’s ‘cool’” combined with a strong but not sarcastic sense of humor.

 There isn’t a single project manager who excels in all of the critical project management skills.  The first requirement is to do an honest self-assessment.  If you find it difficult to “grade” yourself, think about those activities that you enjoy doing.  Do you like being responsible for results?  Does guiding diverse personalities through complex situations provide a sense of personal accomplishment?  Answers to these and other relevant questions can assist in identifying whether project management is for you.

“Trying out” Project Management

Training is another avenue to help in determining whether project management is for you.  Project management training doesn’t necessarily occur solely in a classroom or online environment.  Sometimes people ask me how they can get started in project management.  I recommend internships with organizations and volunteering with not-for-profit groups as two possibilities.  While both of these types of situations are generally without financial compensation, they can provide many opportunities to manage projects.  I know some managers who insist that their project manager “wannabes” become active in one or more community groups in order to gain or enhance necessary skills.

 You Can’t Escape

Whether or not you choose project management as a career, you cannot escape being involved in projects.  The key is to find those activities that are most to your liking and to choose career paths that require the related skills that you possess or can acquire.

 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