Kiron Bondale (51)
No one can argue that having a cohesive, focused team is critical to the success of a complex project.
The challenge for many project managers is figuring out how to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This difficulty compounds when team members are not solely working on your project – maintaining a sense of shared purpose is almost impossible when team members are frequently context switching between activities.
Creating alignment and developing a high performing team starts as early as the project kickoff meeting, but how do you reduce the likelihood of enthusiasm flagging as time goes on?
Assuming you have worked with your project sponsor to come up with an inspiring name for the project, that’s a good start. With the exception of confidential projects, there are few good reasons for baptising projects with code names, techno-babble or convoluted acronyms. A well-crafted name can help to align stakeholder perceptions and can reduce misconceptions about the purpose of the project.
Unfortunately as project names are usually defined before most team members have been assigned to the project, there might be little team building benefit to be gained from having an inspiring name.
A common question that arises during project initiation is what is the optimal percentage allocation of a project manager to the project to ensure the "right" balance between cost and risk. This question should be distinguished from the determination of how much project management effort in total is required since multiple staff will participate in project management activities over a project's lifetime.
In a billable project, this question often generates significant “lively” discussion – depending on the customer’s project management maturity level and the desire of the sales team to win the business, it can sometimes be a tough sell to ensure there is sufficient allocation of effort and funding for the project manager. However, even in cases where the project effort is not being charged to someone, it is possible that there may be preconceived notions regarding what is a reasonable allocation of time.
Most of you will know that the only right answer for most project management scenario questions is “it depends” and this is no exception. Although there is no single formula to help you calculate how much of a project manager is needed as this can vary from as low as 5% to full-time allocation, it may be helpful to understand the factors which could affect involvement.
Risk management is a project management knowledge area which is very susceptible to individual biases. If not acknowledged and managed, these biases can significantly impact the value realized by taking a consistent approach to risk management.
A common instance of such biases relates to risk impact. Most practitioners are familiar with the relationship between tolerance to a risk and its perceived impact – low levels of impact are likely to be highly tolerated, but as impact increases, we reach a tipping point after which even incremental increases in perceived impact will result in a dramatically reduced risk tolerance, and often times, the cure may be worse than the potential of the disease.
A very tragic example of this took place within the first year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A drastic reduction in airline passenger volume in North America was mirrored by a significant increase in the number of road fatalities as tourists chose to employ an alternate, statistically riskier method of travelling.
Media also helps to elevate our fears beyond reason – many will recall that the summer of 2001 was dubbed the “Summer of the Shark” due to a few highly publicized shark attacks, and yet, at year end, the number of shark-related attacks was no greater than in most years.
Risk management training covers the need to assess risks from more than just one dimension, but knowledge of such practices doesn’t help us if we let our natural (but prehistoric) “fight or flight” reaction drive our risk response.
No matter how good a job you do with planning your projects, if you are unable to effectively engage your team in delivering the scope of the project within approved constraints, you will fail.
Depending on the power structure of our organizations, as project managers, we might feel powerless to do more than proactively identify such issues. However, as I hope I conveyed in “Project Managers can Prevent the Three Signs of a Miserable Job”, just because we don’t have formal authority over team members doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to prevent team member disengagement.
I believe that the main barriers to team member progress relates to the following three C’s: Commitment, Capability & Capacity.
The need for commitment goes back to the saying I read on a fortune cookie a few years back: “People don’t lack strength, they lack will”. Commitment most closely relates to Lencioni’s three signs and is the dimension over which project managers should have the greatest influence.
PMI’s 2012 Pulse of the Profession survey listed “engaged project sponsors” as one of the project management practices identified in organizations which had 80% or more of their projects meeting expectations. Most project managers would echo this finding as they are likely bearing scars incurred on past projects where they suffered from the impacts of disengaged sponsors.
Under such conditions, for those project managers who have never had hyper-engaged sponsors, this might seem to be an ideal situation! So what’s the harm that an overly engaged sponsor can do?
A PMI survey conducted a few years back supported the premise that companies which have instituted consistent project management practices enjoy a higher project success rate than those which have not. PMI’s March 2012 Pulse of the Profession publication stated that in organizations which used standardized project management practices, 71% of projects met their original goals and business intent which is higher than the norm.
These two statements would seem to support the merits of implementing a project management methodology (PMM). However, the December 2012 issue of PMI’s Project Management Journal includes an article which challenges this conventional wisdom. This article covers the results of a qualitative-based research study to assess the effectiveness of project management methodologies through a series of four case studies.
Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job” is an easy-to-read parable covering key sources of employee disengagement and what can be done to eliminate them.
The book takes the functional manager’s view – Lencioni states on his web-site “The primary source of job misery and the potential cure for that misery resides in the hands of one individual - the direct manager”. For staff working in a matrix organization, a significant proportion of their effort is spent on projects, hence Lencioni’s recommendations should be adapted for use by project managers as well.
The three signs that Lencioni identifies are irrelevance, inability to self-measure performance or success (or as Lencioni’s puts it, “immeasurement”) and anonymity. Let’s review some ways in which project managers can reduce these sources of misery.
Unless we are sociopaths, we want to know that the work we are doing is making a difference to someone, somewhere – without that we feel irrelevant. Projects are a medium for generating value through change, and if that change is expected to positively impact some stakeholder community, then that is something to feel good about.
I’d written an article previously which listed the benefits a good project schedule can provide, but most of those would be perceived as being of value to a project manager. “All you care about is the schedule!” is likely a complaint that has been heard by most project managers.
The danger in such cases is that project managers will struggle to get sufficient engagement or input into the creation or ongoing maintenance of project schedules. This can become a vicious cycle as the project managers are more likely to develop schedules themselves with minimal input which will only further the negative perception that these schedules are of limited value or don’t reflect reality.
While I don’t expect project managers to be primarily responsible for educating team members and stakeholders on project management practices, part of our role is to support and reinforce the importance of these – after all, we usually don’t know what PM 101 knowledge a new team member has when they are assigned to our projects!
So what are some of the ways in which project managers can convey the necessity or benefits of a schedule to their team members or to the functional managers that should support and demand their creation?
Although its justification is usually tied to the budgeting cycle, it’s safe to say that an annual project planning cycle presents some serious flaws.
Significant effort is expended to have each functional area come up with its wish-list of projects. This process will usually include some quantitative and qualitative analysis to help support decision making. After this information has been gathered, the real “horse trading” begins to identify the short list that will proceed right away as well as those projects that are still important but won’t start until resources become available. It’s even possible that objective priorities are set for the project lists at both a corporate and functional area level.
Unfortunately, this prioritized list which is produced at great cost and elapsed time is just a model and like any model, if it is not kept current, it rapidly diminishes in value. It is very rare to find a leadership team that when reviewing their annual project list months after its creation would feel confident that the relative priorities and completeness of the list is accurate.
When managing projects within functionally-structured organizations it can often feel like a daily challenge to engage people managers effectively such that staff allocations are predictable.
Not only might the managers in such organizations be reluctant to make staff commitments, the true availability of your new team members are also likely to be subject to the ebbs and flows of operational work. To make things worse, it is rare in functional organizations that project managers have direct input into team member performance evaluations, so given that these evaluations are solely performed by the staff’s direct managers, it is a reasonable assumption that team member focus would primarily be on their day-to-day activities.