Project managers have a certain notoriety with their teams. They push team members to reduce their estimates for work. Once an agreed upon estimate is reached, the PM pushes the team to beat the estimate.
If the estimate can’t be beaten, it certainly has to be met. And there will usually be hell to pay if the estimate can’t be met. Now the task is behind. Because there are dependencies for other tasks, the entire project may fall behind.
This of course is scandalous. Project plans need to be updated. Change requests need to be completed. Executives need to be notified. Team members can be made to think that a one-day delay on a task could bring the entire organization to its knees.
But that is the project manager’s job. Keep people on task. Make sure the project stays on course. The project manager that runs the tightest ship will have a project that finishes on time and on budget. It’s even better if you deliver what the customer asked for.
In this environment of keeping everyone honest, does the project manager do a good job of keeping himself honest? Who keeps the project manager on task for meeting his or her commitments?
Many will say that the project manager doesn’t have that many specific commitments in the project plan. Most PMs have generic tasks and activities in a plan that include general management. In an agile or scrum environment, project managers don’t even have tags on the wall. Their tasks don’t get estimated or measured in the same measure that developers’ story points are gauged.
But the project manager has a different type of commitment. The day to day dealings with the team are how they estimate and commit to getting things done.
The tasks the other team members perform are documented in either a project plan or task cards on the wall. The project manger’s tasks are more nebulous.
A project manager may commit to meeting a team member one-on-one to discuss an issue. If he doesn’t show up, or arrives late, it sets a bad example regarding the importance of commitment.
One of the key purposes of a daily stand-up meeting is for team members to identify obstacles they are facing. The project manager’s – or scrum master’s – role is to facilitate removing that obstacle. This often involves working with someone else to solve a problem.
If the project manager drags his feet in working out a resolution, the obstacle remains for the next daily meeting. It could persist long enough to delay the team member’s task.
The project manager holds team members accountable for their commitments. In the same way, the PM should hold himself accountable for his own commitments.
It sets a strong example and it helps everyone else on the project to get their tasks completed on a timely basis.
Do you hold yourself accountable for tasks as well as you hold your team?
I’ve always wanted to get into the mind of people who are habitually late. As one who prides himself on promptness, I hate to be late. On the rare occasion that I am late, I’m very apologetic.
But people who are always late must be intentionally late. When they stroll in ten minutes late for a meeting, have they thought about how they’ve negatively affected the mood of the team? Did they have any consideration of the time of the other people who showed up on time only to wait for them?
I doubt it.
But there is another set of people who hate to be late, but still make a habit of being late. They know they have that meeting in ten minutes, but don’t stop to think about the documents they’ll need to gather for it, or the time it will take them to get to another floor or another building to get there on time.
They end up scrambling every time, showing up late, apologizing to everyone, only to do the same thing next time. What is going through their heads?
My belief is that they don’t understand scheduling backwards.
Visualize being on time.
If, deep down, you want to be on time for a meeting, or work, or church, or anything else, create a picture in your mind of being at the table when the meeting starts. Picture yourself choosing which chair you want to sit at and greeting people who walk in AFTER you.
Visualization is a powerful tool that few people use. Once you create the picture in your mind, you will be more likely to perform the act that you want to perform.
If you begin doing this for every meeting and appointment, you will find yourself making it happen.
Determine what you need.
It takes about two minutes to determine what you need to prepare for a meeting. If you need to have a spreadsheet printed out or just some notes jotted down for the meeting. Once you’re done with that analysis, you know what needs to be done.
The next step is to estimate what it will take to do that preparation. Do you need to do some research? Do you need to crunch some numbers? Whether it will take 10 minutes to do the work, or several hours, determine when you need to start to have it done by then. Add a little time for interruptions and other unanticipated delays.
Let that determine your starting time.
Then, allow enough time to get all of that preparation done at least thirty minutes before the meeting, earlier if possible. Prioritize your tasks so that when it is time to go to the meeting, you have the documents, files or whatever it is you need at the ready.
Now, the most important step of all. How long will it take you to get to the meeting. Do you need to walk? Do you need to connect to a WebEx or some other online meeting site? Whatever it is, leave – or begin connecting – soon enough to get there five minutes early.
Take some reading material or some other work with you. If you get there and you’re early, read that material or do that extra work so that you can be productive during that time.
Scheduling backwards for success
Scheduling backwards can help you be on time but only if you want to be on time. It can also help you plan to get to a party on a Saturday night. It can be used to plan a project or a job around the house.
Two critical skills
Scheduling backwards requires two critical skills. You need to be able to estimate tasks. If you estimate based on wishful thinking or best case scenario, you will underestimate your tasks and continue to be late.
You also need to be able to prioritize. If you estimate all of your tasks and do the wrong ones first, your effort will be for naught. It is important to set priorities. Once those priorities are set, you have to have the discipline to stick to them. If you get distracted by squirrels at every turn, your tasks won’t get done and you will continue to be late for meetings and everything else.
Have you ever read an email and gotten upset, thinking the person was being offensive and rude? Then, when you bring it up to a coworker, expecting them to agree, they took the email in a whole different meaning.
Communication is hard. We don’t always say what we mean. We don’t always mean what we say. Putting things in the written word is even more difficult. Whether it is an email or a project charter, stating something in words that is clear and succinct is always challenging.
What are we trying to accomplish?
When a project manager develops a statement of work or a project charter, there is usually some summary information for the team. These documents generally state the purpose of the project, the expected deliverables, and at least a high-level timeline for the work to be completed.
Once this information has been signed off by all of the critical stakeholders, the project manager will begin developing a more detailed project plan. The nature of that plan will vary depending on whether that project is agile or waterfall and many other factors.
Once a plan or a task list is in place, the project participants will provide input on durations and effort. People will agree and the project begins. Periodic status meetings will verify that the project is on track with the plan.
That’s how it should generally work on a large, organized project.
The small project
Every once in a while there is a small project with only 3 or 4 participants. Maybe it’s only a three-month duration. This is so manageable that management doesn’t see a need or a project manager. The statement of work listed out the deliverables. The team should know what to do.
Within a few weeks it is clear that the team doesn’t know what they are doing. One participant thought that he was responsible for one set of deliverables. The other thought that she was responsible for many of the same items.
Management lets the project progress a few weeks before checking in. In that first check-in, the team members are sufficiently vague about their accomplishments that the manager doesn’t realize that they’re doing dual work.
A couple of weeks later, the manager does another check-in. Here, he has an expectation of progress. But when he asks the team what they’ve accomplished according to “the plan,” they don’t know what he’s talking about.
“What plan?” they ask.
“The plan I sent you from the statement of work at the beginning of the project.”
“What was I supposed to do with that?”
Getting on the same page
No matter the size of a project, it is critical to make sure everyone understands the purpose of the project. All expected deliverables should be defined and broken down into tasks. The team should decide who will be responsible for each task and when they are expected to complete each task.
Finally, periodic status meetings should be held. In each meeting, it is important to make sure everyone knows what they were expected to complete. They should know where their status sits within the plan and what their next task is.
This can be difficult to communicate on a large project. It takes a full-time project manager to accomplish it. On smaller projects, it is often taken for granted. A manager doesn’t have time to manage the project. He assumes it is simple and the few team members will communicate and stay up to speed.
Because of this, smaller projects can have just as much probability of failure as larger ones. All projects need to be managed. Someone needs to be in charge of making sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it.
How many small projects have you seen fail because nobody bothered to manage it?
Over the years I’ve written about many project management skills, techniques, and approaches. Project managers need to be organized. They need to be able to plan efficiently. Project managers need to be able to communicate and customize their communication for their specific audience.
The project manager needs to have many tools in her toolbox. One tool I haven’t written about is respect. Effective project managers know that treating others with respect is one of the key things that allows them to get things done.
Respect for team members
The project manager needs to have respect for the individual team members in many ways. She should respect their time. Team members generally work hard and it is important for them to be productive. Continue reading Managing Projects with Respect→
In our project based organizations, we serve in uber-diverse workgroups. Not only are our team members from many different parts of the globe, they rarely all work for the same team.
An organization may start a project with a small group of internal staff members. That internal team may consist of a contractor or two to augment the staff. They then call in a consulting group to provide expertise and assistance. That firm may have a few contractors of their own. Continue reading Including all Stakeholders→
I once worked for a man that had a defined process for everything. He tracked everything with a spreadsheet. Everyone was expected to follow all of his processes to the letter. People became so bogged down following process that they got little else done.
We’ve all heard of back seat drivers. They sit in the car and criticize the driver. They tell the driver when to turn, when to slow down, and when to speed up.
Not all passengers are like that. Some just sit back, close their eyes and nap through the ride. It is indicative of how we manager our careers. A driver is one who takes control. The driver of a car has to monitor how fast traffic is moving and adjust accordingly A good driver will look ahead to see if there is a slow down or an obstacle in the distance to be able to adjust before there is a problem. Continue reading Are You a Driver of Your Career or a Passenger?→
I have a friend who is a really good sales person. He is also very entrepreneurial. He has worked for other people for a number of years, but I’ve always been impressed by how he approaches his work like it is his own business. It shows commitment.
He has been talking for a long time about going out on his own. I have encouraged him. He has such a deep knowledge of his industry and a lot of innovative ideas that could help people in it.
But for years, he has talked about how he has everything in his head. “I’ve got all these ideas. I just need to get it down on paper.”
I’ve tried helping him, but he wants to do it on his own. He wants to have it all down and then have someone review it. I suspect he doesn’t know where to start. There is a feeling of overwhelm knowing that you have a thousand ideas to write down. Which one do you start with? What if I forget one along the way?
The difficulty of creating a plan
This is a quite common situation. When you’re overwhelmed with all of the details, you don’t know where to start. It has been said that when we go to a restaurant, even though we say we want a lot of options, we are really happier when there are fewer options. It is easier to choose between three items than thirty. But we’ll complain that there just isn’t much to choose from.
Some people have such a hard time starting to write it all down that they avoid it altogether. They end up meandering through an undefined process. They forget things, they do low priority tasks only because they are the items that are present of mind. Failures begin to occur and before long, they end up giving up. They rationalize that the market just isn’t there.
In most cases, people would be so much more successful by just writing it down. It doesn’t have to be in perfectly sequenced order. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But getting it down in writing allows you to analyze.
I like to use a simple Excel spreadsheet. I use one column for a primary priority of A, B or C. the second column is for a secondary priority within that level. A third column is the list of tasks. I list out the tasks. Then I define the priority levels. As I go, I add new tasks that I think of. I may eventually add columns to indicate begin dates and end dates. Maybe even a column for dependencies.
I do this for major efforts like a large project or a new business. I also do it to just plan my day. I may end up doing the tasks in a different order. Things happen that change your priorities. But it gives me a baseline; a direction to start out.
Communicating it to others
If the plan is for a major effort that includes others, there are other things to think of. It’s great to have a plan. But if others are involved in some of the tasks, they need to understand the full plan.
Sending the plan as an attachment in an email is not good enough. If you’re lucky enough to get them to read the plan, it still doesn’t mean they will understand it. The plan needs to be communicated.
Sit down with the team and explain what you are trying to accomplish. What is the purpose of your effort? Share a vision of what things will look like when the plan is executed.
All stakeholders involved need to feel involved and know how they fit in to the solution.
Being able to put the pieces together as a plan
Having a list of tasks is one of the most critical starts to having a plan. But the glue that puts all of the pieces together is in the execution. Too often, people put their list together, prioritize things and begin running with it.
They may have communicated the plan to their stakeholders. But they don’t allow for changes along the way. It takes management and organizational skills to put a plan together. It takes leadership to execute it.
A leader understands the difference between undisciplined variances from a plan and necessary changes due to a change in the environment.
When a quarterback on a football team calls a play, the entire team needs to be on board. But when they line up and the QB sees that the opposing team is lined up ready for their play, he will often call an audible – a quick change of plans. He’ll call out a code word to the team indicating that they are going in a new direction. He’d rather risk some chaos of changing things on the fly, than going forward with a plan that has little chance of working.
Many people see any variation from a plan as a failure to have the discipline to stay with a plan. A good leader knows when to be disciplined and when to be flexible.
Don’t be a perfectionist
I’ve often heard people who brag about being a perfectionist. On the surface, that sounds like a good trait to have. But perfection is rarely attainable. And the costs of striving for it can be high.
People who put a plan together want it to be perfect. They want to allow for anything that could go wrong. This is usually the one thing that keeps them from beginning execution of a plan. It’s just not perfect yet.
They have to accept that the plan is just that – a plan. Situations change which cause plans to change. You can’t anticipate every issue that will come up. You have to trust your judgment to be able to call your own audible when the situation changes.
It is important to develop a decent plan to give you direction. It is even more critical to stop planning at some time and begin executing. Nike has never once said, Just Plan It.
How could he not understand what we’re doing? I couldn’t have made it more clearly to him.
That feeling has probably gone through every project manager’s mind at one time or another. You have developed what seems like an easy concept in your mind. You quickly relay that information to someone else. Maybe they didn’t understand it as well as they thought they did. Perhaps they weren’t listening. Maybe they just didn’t care.
I experienced it once on a project that I managed. I felt I had a good rapport with the key business stakeholder. The project started out very open ended. The client had many initiatives that they wanted to accomplish. Part of our job was to help them prioritize things. We worked closely with them and narrowed it down to a category of tasks. We then discussed those tasks and brought it down to three primary initiatives that we wanted to accomplish in our three-month project.
In preparation for a status meeting that involved high level executives in several departments, I sat down with him and summarized the three objectives we had defined. He seemed happy with the discussion and even commented that it will be great for their business if we are able to deliver on these three items.
The next day in the high-level status meeting, his boss asked him about his comfort level to date.
“I’m still not sure what Lew’s team is planning to implement as part of this project,” he responded.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought maybe I was dreaming. What was he talking about?
I jumped into the conversation and stated that we had decided to focus the project on those three initiatives. The executive said that those sounded reasonable but that she was uncomfortable with the fact that her guy wasn’t in the loop.
I realize that he may have been playing some political game of avoiding commitment. But he also threw me under the bus in this meeting. It made me realize that communication wasn’t just about talking to people. It has to be a very strategic approach to making sure people hear and understand what you have said. I’ve learned that there are six things that have helped me maintain effective project communication.
Verify understanding with an email.
When I talked to this business stakeholder about the three project objectives that we had all agreed upon, I should have followed up with an email that had summarized our conversation. If he had just been not listening or didn’t care at the time, it would have been right there in black and white letting him know what we planned to accomplish.
If by some chance he was more engaged than that, but didn’t understand it, he might have understood it better after reading it. Either way, it would have been reinforced through written word. If it were appropriate, I should have copied others on the email that would vouch for our agreed scope. If he knew there were email witnesses summarizing our conversation, he might have had more motivation to understand.
Customize communication to the individual.
People learn and comprehend things in a variety of ways. There are auditory people who understand best when they hear something. They tend to “feel” music more than others and can hold a conversation and remember what they hear better. Visual people like to see a picture. They may pick up a white paper, look only at the diagrams, and develop a good understanding of the topic. Finally, kinesthetic people do a lot of their learning based on feeling. They have trouble dealing with people that they haven’t developed a rapport with. They say things like, “I have a good feeling about this.”
It is important to try to identify the type of person you are dealing with. If I knew that my business stakeholder was more of a visual person, maybe I should have drawn a diagram on the whiteboard that would help him visualize the project objectives. That follow up email might have done the same thing.
Set expectations up front.
If I gave you directions to a destination without revealing what that destination is until the end, you might not follow those directions very well. But if I told you that I was going to give you directions to Los Angeles and then started listing the directions, you would probably follow them much better. Knowing the expected destination helps your understanding.
The same applies for explaining a business concept. If you explain to the person what you’re trying to accomplish in the first place, you create a vision. They can mentally develop the roadmap knowing the starting and ending points.
Discuss scope from the customer’s perspective.
As a project manager, your perspective is usually limited to that project. You think about the deadline and your limited resources and try your best to avoid committing to too much scope entering your project.
I had a project once where we had planned multiple phases. Once we defined the scope of the first phase that I was managing, that was my limited focus. Any new functionality would be pushed to a future phase and was out of scope.
While discussing some new functionality with the client, I rather bluntly told him that that was out of scope. He became angry. He considered all of the phases part of the scope. When I told him something was out of scope, he thought I was telling him he would never get that functionality. If I had told him that it is not in scope of this phase, but we can prioritize it for the next phase, he would have had a better chance of understanding.
Explain both short-term and long-term consequences.
Much like considering scope across multiple phases, it is important to think longer term than just the project. The project may be your world, but it is just a piece of the puzzle for the business person.
When advising the business, you certainly want to help them make decisions that are advantageous for the project. But those decisions could affect things well beyond the project. Helping the business stakeholder understand the consequences of her decision from both perspectives will help them to be more successful. She will see you more as a trusted advisor, which may have long-term benefits for your career.
Summarize at the end of meetings.
Some people look at a meeting as a one-hour commitment that ends when they leave the conference room. But most meetings generate assignments and responsibilities that go well beyond the 60 minutes.
It is more productive to spend 1-2 minutes to summarize what each person committed to. If someone needs to follow up to obtain additional information, a reminder at the end of the meeting will help ensure that it gets done.
Additionally, if a meeting had action items, it’s important enough to provide meeting minutes. Distributing meeting notes that summarize the action items and responsibilities shows that you didn’t forget. It increases the odds that the responsible parties won’t forget either.
Being a good project manager entails being an excellent communicator. Some people tell a good story and make sure to never leave people out of the loop. These are good components of good communication. But being a good communicator is much more complex. Effective project communication involves verifying that the other person understands what was said and is committed to your joint decisions. When this doesn’t happen, frustration tends to fester on both sides.
How have you improved your communication on projects.
Looking back at every project in which I’ve been involved, I’ve seen successes and failures. There are many reasons for each outcome. But I believe the reason with the most correlation is business alignment.
To align IT with the business is one of the most critical aspects of a project, and perhaps the most difficult thing to do. So how do you align it with the business in the face of such difficulty?
Do your homework
IT people tend to know IT. I know, it’s strange. But we all have our comfort zones and that’s what we focus on. Many business people are the same with business. When it comes to IT, they don’t know it. That’s somebody else’s job.
The fact is, knowing both IT and the business is your job. An IT project manager can understand all of the workings of servers, java script, load balancing, and virtual networks. But she has to dig deep to understand the business as well.
When a homebuilder builds a house, he has to understand all of the tools involved. It is assumed that he will know how to use the tools to build the house efficiently. But his real job is to build a home for the homeowner. He has to understand how that family will live and solve problems of space, storage, utility and many others.
An IT project manager needs to understand the business intimately enough to know the problems that need to be solved. She will then apply the IT tools that she knows to solve them. It’s about solving the business problems, not the tools.
Learn their expectations
As an extension of learning the business, the IT project manager must know what the business expects from them. Many business people think IT is a magical solution that should be able to cure cancer and make pigs fly (both of which I think would be cool).
Some business people have become so jaded with IT’s historical inability to deliver, that their expectations are very low. They go through the project meetings with the hope that this time it will be different, but deep down, they don’t expect much.
Knowing where the business stands will help the IT project manager know how to deal with them and bridge any gaps that exist.
Once the PM has learned what the business expects, she can begin setting expectations for the future. For the business person that expects pigs to fly, expectations need to be brought down to a reasonable level. Allowing that expectation to persist will only cause disappointment down the road.
For business people with low expectations, some PMs do nothing to change it. Their thinking is that they have nothing to lose and they will always exceed the business’s expectations.
Unfortunately, low expectations often become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those low expectations lead to leaving IT out of the loop. An uninformed IT team has trouble aligning with the business.
The project manager needs to let the business know what they should expect from IT. She should also let the business know what IT expects from them. IT can help the business be more successful. But only if they include IT in their decisions. The business must keep IT informed of business activities for either of them to be successful.
Many project managers will spend time learning the business. They meet with the business representatives, document the business processes, and go on their merry way solving the problem.
Along the way, the business makes decisions that contradict what was documented. Companies merge, strategies change, people change their minds. When IT gets frustrated with those changes, it shows that they don’t understand business in general.
The only thing that will stay constant is change. If IT anticipates those changes and sets processes in place to deal with them, they will create better business alignment.
Create an alliance
In many instances, when the business works with IT, it becomes a confrontational relationship. When things go wrong, finger-pointing ensues. The next time they get together for a project, there are hard feelings. The relationship between the two groups can continue on a downward spiral with each project failure.
IT needs to establish a partnership with the business. If IT treats the business like a valued customer and works to solve their problems, they can earn the business’s trust. The business eventually learns that IT is a group they can turn to to help solve their problems rather than increase them.
When a trusting relationship is built, two teams can accomplish much more.
The relationship between IT and business has traditionally been combative. Neither side understands the other and blames the other for not understanding.
An effective project manager needs to learn as much as possible about the business and the challenges they face. Then, to be effective, the PM must solve those problems to business’s satisfaction. Doing so will turn the combative relationship into a successful partnership.
How do you align your IT group with the business effectively?