Focus on Strategy to Focus on Results

Project management is a the art of execution – it is taking a problem and an idea for improvement and moving that idea from hypothetical to actual.  When working with certain people, a project manager may discover a wealth of ideas that sounds excellent as described, but do not necessarily meet current business needs or comply with business strategy.  Even more frequently, there may be a page-long list of project ideas but a finite amount of resources with which to implement.  In order to maximize stakeholder return, the project manager must focus on the business strategy throughout a project lifecycle in order to properly frame discussions about project results.

Business strategy tells an organization what they want to accomplish.  Project managing is how it will be accomplished.  Frequently, the ‘what’ is glossed over in order to spend more time discussing the ‘how’.  Project managers must be careful to identify when this is occurring – both in support and in opposition to potential projects.  Not only will a project manager encounter people who tout idea after idea with no discussion of constraints, they will also encounter people who immediately downplay the possibility of idea because they are unable to immediately determine a method by which to implement.  Both of these approaches should be avoided.


“Without strategy, execution is aimless.  Without execution, strategy is aimless.”

– Morris Chang, CEO of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company


In order to remain focused on business strategy, the project manager should be clear about the purpose behind a discussion.  When the objective is idea generation, state this clearly to the team members – informing them that all ideas are on the table and that time will not be spent determining the ‘how’ during a particular session.  This is promote creativity among participants.  Prior to these discussion, clearly lay out the strategic objectives that a project is intending to address.  Refer back to these frequently in order to guide conversation.

During project execution, reference the business strategy frequently.  During the planning phase, identify not only the project success metrics, but also the strategic objective that each success metrics will support.  Provide quantifiable data whenever possible.  If results are not supporting strategy, then the project will eventually be scrapped some something else that does.  By focusing on strategy, the project manager can ensure that project’s are appropriate to an organization’s needs.

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Change Management for the Project Manager – Building Acceptance

In my previous post, “Change Management for the Project Manager – Know Your Audience,” I examined the need to determine the general change management requirements for each specific project.  Identification is only the first step, however. While it is certainly vital to change management success, the actual actions taken to promote change management will be what creates a lasting affect and determines the final result. End users need to accept the project in order to maximize its long-term likelihood of success.  Here are several suggestions to assist with the change management implementation.

Develop a Strategy

Depending on the level of push-back anticipated based on the initial evaluation, the change management strategy may be very broad – inclusive of the major events or deliverables that will promote change – or incredibly detailed – down to the level of specific phrasing for individual conversations.  I recently sat in on several one-on-one meetings in which staff members were being informed of significant changes to their daily work lives.  One of the project team members was speaking in terminology that I recognized would be confusing to the listener.  The new changes were already expected to be poorly received by the staff members, and the incorrect verbiage only added to their confusion – and therefore hostility toward the project.  It was necessary for me to mention to the team member mid-meeting that the terminology needed to be changed in order to avoid confusion.   The greater the anticipated level of hostility and lack of acceptance towards change, the more specific the change management planning must become.

Listen to the End Users

A major reason that end user may be hostile toward project changes is that they do not understanding the reasoning behind the changes.  Organizations may do a poor job of communicating this information to users.  The situation is frequently compounded by the “just do your job” attitude – specifically, managers or senior management who believe that it is an employees responsibility to do what they are told by their superiors and if they are unhappy with that they should seek another job.  While this attitude does have a strong element of personal responsibility, approaching change from this perspective can be problematic.  Often, employees just want to understand the reasoning behind decisions.  Sadly, this information is not always shared, and is less likely to work its way down multiple levels of organizational hierarchy.


“Established systems are inherently hostile to change. – Newt Gingrich”


When dealing with future users who are hostile towards the future changes, listen attentively to their concerns.  Part of project planning should include addressing these concerns to the extent possible.  When a specific concern cannot be addressed, be open about that with the end user.  Perhaps the user does not view the project as an improvement, either in part or its entirety.  In the absence of hard data, acknowledge that the project may prove to be inferior to the existing system, but that the project team is working hard to do everything possible so that is not the case.

Be Honest

End users love the opportunity to provide suggestions and feedback and project ideas, goals, and designs.  It is wise for project managers to include them in the planning process.  Some projects, however, may be implemented at the direction of senior management or due to some external forces that require change.  In this situations, it is insincere to illicit thoughts from end users in a manner that suggests those thoughts may have some impact on the project outcome.  Whenever there is a “do this because we say so” situation, it is better to be honest about it with users.  The bad reception for this information will pale in comparison to the reception after the user has had reason to believe the change is not a foregone conclusion.

Change is not easy for most people.  It is even more difficult for people to recognize the beneficial elements of change when that same change effects them negatively personally. Nevertheless, change management is essential to project management success, and should be taken seriously by every project manager.  The change management plan should be reviewed for each individual project and revised as necessary.

 

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Change Management for the Project Manager – Know Your Audience

Change management is a significant part of project management.  Projects exist to bring about change, and project management exists to ensure that change is successful in terms of implementation.  Unfortunately, change management requirements vary greatly based on the end users of a project and organizational and personal opinions regarding change. In order to plan for success, project managers must consider the change management process – and to do so they must Know Their Audience.

 

Depending on the defined success metrics, it may be the direct responsibility of the project manager to ensure that end users are knowledgeable and/or accepting of any changes brought about by the project.  If not, this responsibility will fall to other individuals and should be included as part of the project transition plan.  In either case, the project manager should consider the end users and the change management process.  Change management considerations will naturally be required during execution, but should also be considered during the planning phase.

In order to establish a baseline upon which to build a change management strategy, answer the following questions:

  • Does the organization/department/team experience change on a frequent basis? How many times per year?  What form does this take?
  • Does the organization have an established change management plan or does it differ based on the project?
  • Are the end users who are affected by the project change a small percentage of people or the entire organization?

Answers to these questions will determine the required change management effort. Organizations who embrace the idea of frequent change and innovation will have end users who show little resistance to changes.  These users will require education, training, and possibly project rationale, but little else.  Organizations who are required to change frequently but would prefer stability will present a strong challenge.  In this situation, change management must also focus on a campaign of ideas to change the minds of those effected.


“If you focus on results, you will never change.  If you focus on change, you will get results.” – Jack Dixon


Depending on end user numbers, the project manager and team may wish to consider individual change preferences.  When their are few end users, personality assessments may be used to determine each individual team members attitude towards change – both in general and towards the project specifically.  Communication with the end users should also be used to the extent possible, either as an initial or a secondary data element.  The project manager may use this information to cater the change management plans towards individuals, departments, and any other subset of end users.

Once you have defined the change management requirements, then you may begin planning for success!

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Managing the Type ‘A’s

The term “Project Management” is somewhat misleading.  Perhaps a better term is “People Management” – after all, a finished project is the end result of concentrated effort and work from people.  Projects do not complete themselves.  Unfortunately, they do not manage themselves either.

Project managers are called upon to work with all types of team members.  Understanding the different personalities in a project team can help the manager select and implement management and communication procedures that are catered to the needs and preferences of the individual.  In this post, we will look at management tricks for working with the infamous “Type A” personality.


Type A personalities are characterized by assertive behavior, a strong need for organization, and a desire for “perfectionism”.  These are the project team members who are constantly reminding others of deadlines and referencing the project documents.  They can be incredibly valuable to a project team thanks to their strong time management skills and ability to focus on remaining within scope and cost estimates.  They may also bring less ideal qualities to the table.

Due to their perfectionist nature, Type A personalities may have a tendency to take on too many tasks in order to control the end results.  They may state that they have time and bandwidth to complete deliverables, but then become highly stressed when they do not have the necessary time to present a final product that meets their own high standards.  They may also become bogged down in details early in the planning process when it is more prudent to be focusing on the big picture.

Thankfully, these traits are manageable.  The first step is to identify the personality.  Perhaps a team member is volunteering for more than their share of the work.  In order to avoid this problem, attempt to evenly delegate initial tasks and then evaluate the outcomes before completely assigning all future deliverables.  Always have an agenda for meetings, and then stick to it.  A written agenda will help dissuade the Type A from veering too far off topic for too long.  Include the estimated discussion time for each agenda item, and then assign the Type A personality to keep track of the meeting time and insure that the timeline is being followed.  This will put the assertive and organizational skills to use in a positive way.

Type A personalities bring a lot to a project team and can be very strong assets if they are utilized intelligently.

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Lessons Learned

Projects do not always turn out exactly the as planned.  Having worked on a number of projects throughout my education and career, here are several of the most important Lessons I have Learned.

Plan Early

Planning is perhaps the most important part of the Project Lifecycle.  If done well, planning will provide the greatest possible chance for success in execution.  Sometimes, it is easy to fall into the trap of attempting to “plan as you go”.  In these cases, planning and execution often occur simultaneously.  This should be avoided if at all possible.

Delegate Often

When planning occurs early enough, then there is no reason not to delegate tasks.  Some people have a tendency – and I list myself among these people – to complete all tasks on our own and minimize teamwork.  This approach does not take full advantage of the talents and skills of your team members.  By delegated deliverables and responsibility, it frees up more time for the project manager to control and monitor progress.

Respect People

Do not make the mistake of treating team members as if a specific project will be the only future interactions with the person.  Always remember that team members come to work each day wanting to do a go job.  It is the project manager’s role to communication efficiently and effectively in order to describe what that looks like.


I have completed many projects where I failed to do some of these items, and the results were not as ideal as they could have been.  I encourage every project manager to take these lessons to heart and hope they assist with your success.

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The Subtle Art of Anticipation

anticipation

The ability to anticipate potential project problems has tremendous value for project managers.  Alpha project managers are known to put substantially more time into the Planning phase and less time in the Monitoring and Controlling phase.  Anticipation of potential project problems during the Planning phase will help alleviate time spent reaction to future problems.  Here are two tricks to help build your ability to anticipate.

Read and Re-Read

Miscommunication is a daily risk in the modern age of online communication.  The proliferation of e-mail, text, and social media has elevated the skill of written communication from the infrequent 5-paragraph essay to a daily string of frequent short communications.  If we are not careful, it can be very easy to formulate a written message that fails to accurately present our intended message.

A simple method to avoid this problem is to read messages multiple times.  When reading, concentrate on identifying wording or phrases that could be interpreted in multiple ways.  Avoid ‘assumptions’ that everyone who reads an ambiguous message will correctly and unanimously interpret its meaning.

Forget what you Know

Knowledge is certainly both necessary and beneficial to project success.  There are some circumstances, however, in which it can be a hindrance.  When planning a project, it is reasonable to assume the project team members have average to substantial knowledge about projects in which they are involved.  This can place the project team at a disadvantage when attempting to anticipate the actions of end users who do not have the same knowledge.  It is simple to follow the proper rules when you already know what they are.  Here is a difficult but incredibly useful mental trick that can help illuminate potential problem points before they occur.

Project teams must look at every project from the viewpoint of an end user with no knowledge of the product, process, or expectations.  There are several ways to do this. First, the project team may recruit a practice end user to test the product.  The disadvantage to this approach is that you will only have the functional perspective of a single individual.  If possible, seek the input of a wide variety of end users to gain a better perspective of potential miscommunication.

If an incremental beta test approach with end users is not possible, then you will have to perform this test yourself of have project team members  do so.  As you look at a specific step or action, ask “Is there only one way to do this?”  If the answer is ‘no,’ then you have the potential for user error.

The art of anticipation is a skill that can be developed over time with concentrated effort and is crucial to long-term success in a project management career.


 

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Working with Competing Priorities

priorities

The reality of most projects is that most team members must divide their time between a number tasks that compete for time, attention, and effort.  We all have a limited amount of time in which to make progress on tasks, and rarely do we find ourselves committed solely to one project.  This is also true for those individuals who are part of the project team.  Managing the competing priorities of project team members can be a daunting challenge.  Failure to do so, however, may quickly sideline an otherwise accurate project schedule.

 

There are several ways in which a project manager may ‘encourage’ workers to focus on their tasks when worker’s must make time management decisions.

1.  Use Small Steps

Ideally, a deliverable date could be set during the project planning phase and then no follow-up would be necessary prior to the due date.  That is frequently unrealistic.  Project managers must be willing to separate deliverables into even smaller tasks and then communicate more frequently with workers to ensure those tasks are completed.  In some cases, it will be less daunting for a project team member to donate 5 or 10 minutes to a tasks over a series of days than a full hour all at once.  This technique requires extra time and management on the part of the Project Manager, but that may be what is necessary to keep to a schedule.


“Action Expresses Priorities” – Mahatma Gandhi”


2.  Go Up the Chain

When you are in a position to require a specific person’s help and that person does not report to you, it may be necessary to communicate with another manger or director.  In order to facilitate this technique, project managers should be in communication with the direct supervisors of any employees who are on the project team or expected to provide work on the project.  These individuals should be included as stakeholders and part of a communications management plan.  Remember to pass along good information to managers as well, and do not only communicate when problems arise.

3.  Be a Leader

Whenever you are in a position to require help, it makes sense to earn the respect of those with whom you will be working.  Authoritative actions should be the last resort when working with project team members.  The project manager must be prepared to offer assistance as needed and to communicate openly with team members.  Providing feedback when work is completely well will help earn respect.

Competing priorities are an unfortunate truth of life, but they do not have to ruin a project’s potential success.  Project managers should anticipate the need to be flexible and take action whenever the project schedule appears threatened.

 

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