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September 2012 Archives

Why 'What's In It For Me?' Works in Projects

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Have you ever wondered why many executives don't turn up for your steering committee meeting and those who do are usually on their smartphones?

Chances are that the only information the executives received about your meeting was the agenda and the briefing notes, which focus on the project's status and technical performance. This is abstract data that takes time to read and understand. As a consequence, it becomes paperwork that is put aside to read later, buried under other paperwork and eventually forgotten.

To be successful in attracting the attention of busy executives, focus on a 30-second 'wake-up call' that will cut through the thousands of other messages circulating in your organization and get the executives attention. You cannot communicate unless you get the other person's attention first; so your 'call' must persuade each member of the committee to be both physically and mentally present for your meeting. Only then will your more complex messages be heard and possibly acted upon.

The solution is 'What's In It For Me' (WIFM).

WIFM appeals directly to the attention and decision-making functions of the human brain. The amygdala, a part of the brain, rules much of our actions and behavior.

The amygdala determines in a fraction of a second what we pay attention to. It will pay no attention at all unless it can immediately see WIFM. To cut through each executive's communication overload, your 30-second 'wake-up call' needs to be direct and simple and appeal to the person's emotions. Pleasure and fear are equally effective emotions, so the call should worry the executive--or make him or her feel good. It should not focus on a third party, such as you or your project.

The amygdala is expert at screening everything that doesn't directly interest it, including things that are abstract, complex or about someone else. Uninteresting or confusing messages are rejected in the blink of an eye, before the rational and analytical areas of the brain have a chance to begin the thinking process.

Only after you have gained the executive's attention can you engage with the person and deal with the substance of the meeting. Strong messages start this process, but the real work of the meeting will require the use of more highly crafted forms of communication built around the concept of effectively 'advising upwards.'

Ask yourself: 'Are we getting the attention of those most important to us?' If you are getting attention, are you keeping it and building it? And if you don't know, what can you do to find out?

5 Things You Never Want To Hear On A Project

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Starting out as project managers, we begin to recognize the signals that point to project risks. Initially, these signals come in the form of status reports, work plans and delivery metrics. As we gain experience, we learn to sense additional risk signals that come from observation and dialog. And those signals originate from project managers themselves.

These signals sometimes go unheeded because the ability to act on them can typically be constrained. For example, there is fear of making project customers unhappy if you raise objections, unrealistic expectations and a false belief that these types of messages will somehow motivate the project team.  

In my experience, here are some of the signals that have pointed to a project headed down the wrong path:     

1. "We'll start the project at the kickoff meeting."   
Many times, important project mobilization activities tend to be ignored in the haste to begin a project with a large group meeting. This fixation on the kickoff meeting causes key mobilization tasks to fall behind. Early action on staffing plans, on-boarding processes and communication mechanisms before the kickoff meeting are more important than making sure the chocolate chip cookies arrive in time.  
 
2. "This project WILL finish on time and budget." 
This signal typically appears at the first sign of progress or cost slippage. As opposed to dealing with the root cause of the slippage, many times project managers will shrink scope to meet time and budget. Reducing scope has the effect of reducing the overall value proposition for the project. Address this tendency by allocating sufficient time early in the project to identify business success criteria independent of schedule and costs.

3. "The CEO is the sponsor for this project or program." 
Name-dropping typically emerges when there is a conflict over resources needed by multiple projects. Project managers hope that by presenting the CEO or other executive as a sponsor, it will create commitment to the project. However, CEO's and other executives usually do not have the luxury of time to serve as a sponsor on a project. Leverage stakeholder management activities such as a level of funding approval list to confirm the primary sponsors for the project.

4. "We are four weeks behind schedule, but we'll make it up in the next phase."   
Unless there is a large change of scope, one of the more the unfortunate laws of physics for projects is that any schedule slippage is likely to carry over to the next phase. The best approach is to be transparent about the schedule delay. By making the slippage transparent, you enable leadership team attention and corrective actions.

5. "I feel green." 
A green status indicator in a project report typically means that no issues are present. However, a green status indicator does not always tell the complete story.

For example, despite deliverable dates that were slipping on one project, the project manager continued to declare a green status indicator. In an executive steering committee meeting, the leadership team challenged the project report. The project manager said,  "I know the deliverable dates are slipping but I'm still feeling green." To promote project team and leadership confidence, employ objective project metrics such as planned vs. actual deliverable dates or earned value analysis to show the true status of the project.

While tools, approaches and processes help manage delivery risk, recognize these signals and take the right steps to act on them.

What have you found to be good examples of signals that point to risks on projects? 

Foster Growth for Junior Project Managers

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How can you still use the people you currently have on your team rather than replace them?

One suggestion is to look to your junior project managers, provided that they are sufficiently skilled, to complete the work that needs to be done.

But how do you train the junior project manager quickly and sufficiently?

As project managers, we, especially those with credentials, have a strong belief in this profession and the desire to advance our knowledge and practice. Those of us who are already senior project managers have the responsibility to work with our junior project managers or team members and support them in their growth.  

As a project or program manager, you have the power to give them the tools they need to unleash their power as coordinators and junior project managers. As a project manager, you already know how to manage the project. It's up to you to help the less experienced know what they should be doing, what they shouldn't be doing and what tools they should or shouldn't be using.

For example, I worked with one junior project manager who lacked experience in working with those who were directly involved in the business operation. The solution we found was to involve her directly with the business analyst. The business analyst could help the project manager communicate her needs into "business speak." This allowed the project manager to learn, and adjust her management and communication styles.

Knowledge sharing gives junior project managers more confidence. By providing them with an experience working with you on a project, you are creating an environment that fosters growth and development and is fun and rewarding.

Are you a senior or junior project manager? What has your experience been like? How do you foster growth for junior project managers?

Lessons Learned with External Teams

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Many companies only have internal projects, and therefore conduct lessons learned sessions with the same people. But what if you have an external project and you collaborate with team members outside of your organization?  

Should the project manager of the lead organization invite the outside project team to the closing project's lessons learned session?

Here are three tips project managers can use to incorporate external project teams into their lessons learned:

1. Be discreet about company information, but target improvement. Before working on the project, there was likely some type of agreement with regard to proprietary information. This agreement should still be in effect for the lessons learned session. Before you host the lessons learned meeting, talk openly about the processes with the external team to help ensure your discussions are protected.

2. Stay focused on the project. Even during lessons learned sessions for internal project teams, attendees can veer off topic. Try not to argue about which organization was responsible for the mishaps or which company fell short on delivery. Focus on the issues: How can you better prepare project plans with outside parties? How can you review risk and issue lists together? What different criteria should be included in the scorecard that will bring value to monitoring the project and measuring the vendor relationship?

3. Build camaraderie. The two organizations may want to collaborate on a future project or enhancements to this closing project. Prepare questions that will allow the groups to work as one in the future. For example, how did the quality standards benefit evaluating the finished product? If the project relied heavily on documentation, is there any additional information that could be helpful? What communication methods may need to be revisited for the two companies to reach a decision in a timelier manner?
 
If the third-party is holding separate post reviews on the same project, chances are valuable lessons from one group or the other are being missed. It is not uncommon for the lead organization to have an exclusive session in addition to a combined session. Having both groups present can be a favorable collaborative effort toward building vendor management best practices or improving the next project, the future vendor relationship or just a similar project situation.

Does your organization include the external team in its lessons learned sessions?

The 5 W's of Successfully Working on a Global Project

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Due to the global nature of projects, nowadays it's quite common for project managers to have project teams that include members of different nationalities and cultures.

Rather than making positive or negative conclusions about a culture, project managers need to build awareness and understand that cultures exist relative to each other. The challenge is to determine the actions that will enable them to successfully manage projects and reconcile the relative differences.

Project managers should consider the five W's to successfully work collaboratively on a global project.

Who: Who is working on the project? Everyone. It is rare to find a stakeholder or team member working on a project that has little or no contact with people from a different culture of their own.

What: What skills do project managers need to develop that will make them credible in another culture's eyes?

A project manager may be fluent in one or more foreign languages, for example. While that will help him or her communicate with others, it will not give the project manager the understanding on how a culture understands deadlines or other aspects of business. Project managers must listen and observe while working in a global setting to learn these things.

Where: Where is there opportunity to learn? Project managers should interact with people of different cultures inside and outside of the business world to navigate through unfamiliar cultures. Next time an intercultural opportunity arises, seize the moment to observe, reflect and learn.
 
When: When is the best time to collaborate with a multicultural team? Select an activity where all or most of your team members participate, such as a project status meeting. Does every culture respect a set meeting time, for example? In some cultures, there are no written rules of time etiquette, and a single event can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

Why: Why should you care about multicultural traditions? As a project manager, you will have to manage teams that are partially collocated and across time zones. You should be somewhat comfortable in foreign environments and cognizant of local customs to continue learning and effectively conduct projects.

As a global project manager, how do you apply the five W's?
 

Can Modern Executives Learn from the Romans?

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In September 2011, Project Management Journal published an article comparing similarities between public works management in the Roman era and similar projects today.

The only significant difference that was noted from the last 2,000 years is the proliferation of formal tools and techniques we now use compared to the 'seat of the pants' (or should that be toga?) approach used by Roman managers.

However, in my opinion, the authors, Derek Walker and Christopher Dart could have added a few more differences.

For example, the simpler social structures of the Roman era provided a direct link between project initiator and the manager responsible for the work. For major works, the emperor would frequently be the person directly funding the project. He would also appoint the manager. Another way projects were launched: To enhance his or her prestige, a benefactor funded other projects.

The appointed manager bore personal responsibility for the project's success. Interestingly, he also had to lobby for the unpaid appointment. The manager's prestige and the standing of his family for generations to come could be influenced by success or failure of a significant project.

Most of the actual work was contracted to commercial organizations on similar terms. The contractor was obliged to complete the work for the price agreed upon by both parties. Failure could literally have fatal consequences for the contractor and serious consequences for his descendants.

Probably the most significant difference between the Romans and today's project professionals was the overall commitment to success demonstrated by the Romans. There were direct lines of accountability from the benefactor funding the project to the contractors delivering the work. Everyone's prestige was at stake.

Today, the complexity of modern organizations and multiple competing objectives tends to obscure the link between a project and the organization's overall strategy.

Most project managers are committed to the success of their projects. But this commitment is not necessarily reflected in the higher levels of the organization, as evidenced by the number of articles on 'selling' the benefits of a project to organizational management.  

When there is a clarity of purpose, such as building the London Olympics, remarkable results can still be achieved. Unfortunately, within the matrix structures common in most organizations, in my opinion, one of the real challenges is finding a 21st century way to recapture the Roman's top to bottom commitment to the success of each project.

How do you think this level of stakeholder alignment could be achieved in your organization? 

Create Program Visibility

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Many organizations have a vision statement focused on long-term goals. In my experience, project professionals tend to dislike such vague objectives because they lack detail on how the goals should be achieved. This is program or project work: We want to turn a sponsor's idea or goal into actual plans.

But in reality, vision statements in a project or program can be very impactful, as they lend themselves to collaboration among stakeholders.

As an example, let's look at the Buddha Memorial Center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
At the heart of this religious center is a relic of the Buddha that avoided destruction when it was snuck out of the country during the 1960s Cultural Revolution. Three decades later, Buddhist monks in India felt the relic should return to Taiwan. For Taiwanese citizens and politicians, as well as Buddhists worldwide, there was a wish to do full justice to the relic and its religion.

Buddist.jpgPlanning for the Buddha Memorial Center began in 1998 when the relic arrived in Taiwan. Construction launched in 2003 and was completed in 2011. During that time, the design for the center changed more than 114 times, growing from 20 to more than 100 hectares (247 acres). Even when construction finished in 2011, the world's largest copper Buddha statue, at 108 meters (354 feet) high, was added to the center in the spring of 2012.

Buddhist2.jpgAlthough it's in every project professional's nature to keep as close to plans as possible, and keep change to a minimum, change management was a key factor to success with the Buddhist Memorial Center project.

The project managers had to be flexible and communicate. Traditional tools and techniques such as 'rolling-wave' and 'fast-track' planning allowed constant change to be embraced.

Program visibility was also important. 'Program visibility' refers to making sure everyone involved is aware of objectives and strategy risks, and that everyone feels involved in the management and its outcome. (Program Management Standard, p14. Doman IV: Stakeholder Management.) In this case, regular meetings were held for all the major stakeholders. The meetings were often open to the public and media, which helped generate even more support.

Meetings are as much about reaching consensus as sharing information. Program visibility also ensures that all stakeholders, from sponsors to workers, share a sense of purpose and commitment.

The lesson learned from building the Buddhist Memorial Center shows how important it is to share your vision for a project or program. Doing so can allow you to create a lasting impact.

How have you made your project or program more visible?

Editor's Note: Photographs taken by Liang Ching Chih.

If Project Managers Had Life Tenure...

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I recently heard an interview with Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, regarding the rulings he has handed down over the years. The reporter wondered if Mr. Scalia ever worried about public backlash or the opinions of his fellow justices.

Mr. Scalia simply replied that he didn't worry about that. He has life tenure, given to him by the U.S. government. He believes that tenure allows him to do and say what he thinks is right and not worry about how it will affect his career or colleagues.

This answer had a profound effect on me.  I often wonder if I am "doing the right thing" when I make decisions at work. I try, but I would not be honest if I did not admit that the career survival instinct hasn't kicked in once in a while. Perhaps sometimes I compromise on issues that I know are not good for my projects or my team. But I'll give the client the answer they want to hear, or perhaps tone down the weekly status report to avoid stirring the pot when there are real issues to discuss.

I've now started applying what I will refer to as the "life tenure" rule to all of my decisions and activities. I try to look at a decision or situation through the lens of "If I did not have to worry about politics or personalities or self-promotion, would I still make this move?" I have to say, thankfully, that I appear to achieve that about 90 percent of the time. But clearly I think that can improve.

I know it is naive to think that someone could or should perform their job as if they could not get fired.  Or to think that if we all had that freedom, that we would always make the right decision. But it is an interesting concept to ponder, and a fascinating test to apply.

Think about it: How would your professional life change if you had life tenure as a project manager?

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