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.

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

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>.

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