Tuesday, 05 August 2014 00:00

The Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management

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Nimmo Aug5Throughout my career, I have worked with, for, and hired a great number of project managers. Along the way, I have noticed that many of the challenges PMs face are common across industry, vertical, professional services and in-house PMO organizations. Yet, much of the advice out there meant to help project managers in the face of adversity actually ends up perpetuating the challenges.

A project manager is supposed to be a leader, a facilitator, an advisor and an advocate, not only for the project, but also for the team, the business and the cause. However, clients and stakeholders tend to see project managers as utility people and not as leaders, and this lead me to wonder about how we got into this situation in the first place.

1. Taking Notes

I once had a project manager on my team complain to me about how business stakeholders only saw him as a note taker, and treated him as an administrator. My advice to him was to stop taking notes. His eyes widened, and he looked at me in shock. I imagine this reaction was because he’d been taught throughout his career that one of the major responsibilities of a project manager is to take notes, capture decisions and document, document, document. I don't disagree that creating alignment and visibility to decisions is critical, but in today's world there are better mechanisms for capturing this information than to waste the time of a highly paid project manager taking notes.

Rather, I always give my project managers this simple advice: do things that empower you; do not do the things that relegate you. When you are taking notes in a meeting, you are not actively engaged in discussion nor are you actively listening. You are not seen as a leader, you are not offering insights and opinions, and you are not being strategic. You are being tactical and administrative. Project managers need to elevate their game and start driving value for their customers, whether internal or external. Think about your clients, stakeholders and users, and make them the center of your story. Do they get value from your notes, or are your notes only valuable to you as a way to CYA when things go wrong? Your value stems from your voice, your experience, your ideas, your planning, and your ability to lead a team. That is what drives value, not taking notes.

2. Saying No

No one likes to be told no. Project managers have a very hard job, and sometimes a “no” answer is the most expedient response. After all, they are stewards of budget, time, scope, quality and experiences for both their clients (or internal stakeholders) and for their teams. They constantly tow the line, managing expectations and trying to make everyone happy. So when life happens – there are hiccups on a project, changes are made, new stakeholders become involved, etc. – the “no” answer that was once expedient becomes a kill word in a world that is always in flux. Dialogue ends, collaboration falters, and innovation is stifled. Instead of managing expectations through saying “no,” think about using the “yes, and…” principle.

At my company, we recently hired an improv comedian to come in and work with my team under the that there many parallels could be drawn from improv that could also apply to business. Besides learning to work through fear in order to be more authentic, she focused on the “yes, and…” principle, which means listening to what someone else says and building upon it. For example, when a stakeholder says, "I’ve done some research, and I would like to add a new module to the system.” The answer should be, "Yes, I understand how that can help you achieve your business outcomes sooner… and we may be able to de-scope some additional functionality that may not have as much impact to your goals. As a result, we would need to increase budget by only 100K;" versus, the normal freak out: “What? You want to add scope? No, we can’t do that. It will make us go over budget, impact our timelines and introduce additional scope.” The idea is to get people to collaborate and understand that any idea that's brought to the table can be accepted, added upon and made better. “No” shuts people down; “Yes, and…” gets people to collaborate and build upon an idea, suggestion or request to make it better.

3. Being On Time, On Budget, and On Scope

I interview a lot of people for project management positions, and one question I always ask is: "How do you define project success?" Eight times out of ten I get “on time, on budget, and on scope.” This is a canned answer that has been engrained in the heads of most project managers who have gone through PMI certification. I would argue that it is not about on time, on budget and on scope. It is about managing expectations, delivering on business outcomes, and ensuring both client and team satisfaction. The reality is that things change. Very rarely is anything delivered on time, on budget and on scope. The business climate changes, the details are revealed, complexity increases, priorities shift and new stakeholders are introduced (to name a few). A great project manager understands the business objectives and drives the project to deliver on those objectives, all the while proactively anticipating needs, managing expectations, facilitating engagement, and fostering satisfaction. It is about driving results and making people feel good about the results that you are driving.

4. Being a Journalist

I recently read a book that portrayed project managers as Journalists. Journalists are people who detach the goal of accurate reporting from the goal of project success. We all know these project managers. They are so focused on accurately reporting the news (the detail in the report, the cadence of the report, the color of the report), that they completely lose sight of the WHY; why are we doing this project, and how is success defined.
Project Managers know that they have to understand the true state of their projects and to report accurately on them. Sometimes, however, they lose sight of the reason for all this attention to detail: making sure the project achieves its objectives. They adopt, as their goal, the accurate portrayal of the state of the project at all times. They become, in effect, journalists. Like film critics, project journalists believe – if only subconsciously – that they can succeed even if their project fails.

Great project managers don’t just report on the news, they drive the news. They drive the direction of the project toward a successful outcome. They are active participants in the process and not innocent bystanders. Next time you write a status report, make sure you are not just reporting the news but that you have taken an active role in making the news. Be a leader who helps solve the problems of tomorrow, versus just reporting on the problems of yesterday, and take accountability for outcomes.

5. Leaning Out

At the company I work at, we have a conference room called Fishbowl and it truly is a fishbowl. It has three walls that are ceiling to floor glass and it sits along the main corridor as you walk into our building – a very popular place for our fellow team members to collaborate with clients and one another. Every time I walk by and a meeting is in progress, I always analyze body language, observing where people are sitting/standing, how the whiteboards are being used, and the expressions on people's faces. One thing that drives me crazy is when I see people sitting along the wall and not at the table. I understand if the seats at the table are full, but if not – and people are still “leaning out” (sitting against the wall), this tells me they don’t feel as important as the others in the room. In my early days there, I noticed some of my project managers sitting on the sidelines. I understand the need to be courteous, but I have told them they need to get in there. When you sit on the sidelines, it sends a message that you are not as important, you are not critical, your opinion doesn't really matter and you are optional. My project managers are not optional; they are critical. They are active participants helping facilitate and drive important conversations, problem solving, and decision-making. My advice is always to be aware of your non-verbal communication via body language, gestures and other non-verbal cues. Your body posture, expressions, and position in a room all send messages. Think of how you want to be portrayed and perceived by your clients and align your positioning and body language accordingly. This takes confidence, courage, and a belief that you are important; your ideas matter and you are critical to the success of your project.

6. Getting Stuck in Orbit

Effective project managers cannot get stuck in orbit, hovering over the project like an observer and a reporter. When they do, they never truly understand the drivers behind a project and never truly understanding the intricacies. I always say the devil is in the details, and project managers who don’t dive in and get their hands dirty shouldn’t be surprised when things go haywire. An effective project manager has to be able to go micro and then elevate to macro. You have to understand the ins and outs of the project, however, you can't get stuck there. You also have to be able to elevate yourself above the project, staying ahead of your team, anticipating your client's or stakeholder’s needs and addressing them proactively, versus reactively. You have to keep the team connected to business outcomes and drive decision-making to align and support those outcomes. When you "fly high" and are not really connected to outcomes and don't understand the details, your team doesn't need you and your client doesn't need you either. You become an administrative artifact, just reporting the news (as mentioned above). Get connected. Get engaged. Submerse yourself. Elevate yourself. Don't get tangled in the web of details, but don't skip out of orbit either. It is a careful balance and one that is mastered through artistry and experience, not science.

7. Enamoring the Problem

Your team is miserable. You are up against tight timelines. Your client or stakeholders have unrealistic expectations. Everyone is complaining, including you. You are not doing anyone any favors, but rather you are contributing to the misery. As a project manager, you are seen as a leader (whether you are one or not), and you are held to those expectations. Leaders do not enamor problems; they are problem solvers. They help contribute to the solution. You may listen, you may sympathize, and you want to develop empathy for your team, but at some point you have shift your team away from enamoring problems and toward a solution. You are empowered and should have the skills of influence and persuasion to help shift your team's thinking and mindset. Next time your team is sitting around and complaining, elevate yourself and drive them to take accountability of the situation. Ask your team, “What is one small step we can take to change the current situation?”

When all is said and done, perhaps the problem lies in the title. Perhaps “manager” is the wrong word. After all, “manager” has had centuries of connotative and pejorative meaning attached to it. Could it be that simply changing the title could change the way others perceive the position? Advisor maybe? Facilitator? These things might be a start, but I think the most effective and immediate answer is for project managers to change the way they think of themselves and start to change their behaviors. They should cultivate the habits, attitudes, mannerisms and leadership qualities that will make them valuable assets to the team and not mere artifacts.

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Keren Nimmo

Keren Nimmo is Vice President of Client Engagement at EffectiveUI, a leading user experience agency based in Denver, Co. A transformational technology and business leader with more than 13 years of experience, she is responsible collaborating with clients on program strategy and execution, applying design thinking and creative solutions to ensure an exceptional client experience and valuable project outcomes.
With a reputation for leading high-performing teams, Keren’s focuses on reducing complex ideas to simple concepts in order to unify and guide people, implementing a creative and wide-ranging analysis style, and consistently delivering successful and holistic solutions to large and complex business challenges.

Keren’s expertise includes business & IT strategy, program and project management, human-centered design, business process management, quality management and organizational change management. She has worked with diverse companies in industries spanning advertising, oil & gas, telecommunications and casual dining. Keren holds a BS in Information Systems and Marketing from the University of Colorado Boulder. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two daughters.


+1 # Stephanie Wiser 2014-08-06 12:14
Keren, This is wonderful article! Thanks so much for clearly articulating why the typical definition of project management should be reassessed - Loved #2 and #6!
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0 # Keren 2014-08-14 17:09
Thanks Stephanie! I appreciate your feedback.
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0 # Esmeralda Ponce de L 2014-08-06 13:39
Gracias por las reflexiones y consejos. Son pertinentes y agudas.
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+1 # Brenda 2014-08-06 16:24
Keren, This is a great summary. I sometimes find a 'list' (e.g. 7 this, or 5 of that) to be a cop-out, catering to everyone's need for fast delivery of information but not always an effective message. This article hits the mark. My fav is #2. I frequently point out to my fellow project managers and stakeholder do-ers that a 'no' answer is easy, not right. In fact, I recommend to ALWAYS say "yes". Only when the 'yes' options have been fully explored can a PM say they properly served the project. Thanks for the great article, Keren.
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+1 # Keren 2014-08-14 17:11
Hi Brenda- I couldn't agree more. Most of the escalated situations I have to deal with are situations where we have said 'no, we can't do...'. Clients don't like to hear it and there are other ways of getting to the same outcomes (even if we know it is not possible) where clients feel like they have won and we feel like we have won.
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0 # Olivier Richer 2014-08-07 09:14
Bravo Keren!
Excellent paper: realistic, true and daring! Your voice shakes habits and unveals their real impact. That brings the Sun into my mind. Thank you.
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0 # Keren 2014-08-14 17:12
Thank you for your kind comments! I appreciate them.
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+1 # Mike Morton 2014-08-07 15:27
excellent article - spot on!
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0 # Keren 2014-08-14 17:12
Thanks Mike!
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0 # Mary Pratt 2014-08-19 13:33
I've been thinking a lot about the title "Project Manager" and how being a "Project Manager" affects the mindset of people with that title. "Project Managers" are about constraints, it seems, and not at all about "Yes...and..." They are *managing* the project, *managing* the people, *managing* the scope, etc. And what does "managing" mean? It means keeping all dynamic factors constrained within a fixed budget, fixed scope and fixed schedule as top priority. Not keeping focus on value. Not allowing for change.

People will argue that there's no choice, that we have to work this way in our (mostly) Waterfall world.

So... then should we be Scrum Masters? Possibly, but then this limits us to Scrum and also has a serious tech connotation (some PMs don't work with that much tech).

Producers, maybe? I am currently thinking that "producer" it must be because the title implies more value-creating pro-activity. My doubt is that "Producers" catch "production" projects as they are thrown over the fence at them (from "above-the-line ") and then just execute those projects (with the "below-the-line " worker bees).

Curious if you've come up with any new thoughts in the two weeks since you wrote this excellent article.
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0 # Keren 2014-09-18 11:30
Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I have struggled with this myself. You don't want to be too abstract in the titles as clients don't know what they mean, yet, you don't want titles to be too constrained. I currently work in an agency environment and in this specific industry, producer, is actually a very 'tactical' title. Exactly as you described. Some of the titles I have played with are 'experience evangelists or engagement evangelists'. However, as I mentioned, they can seem to abstract and not have much meaning. However,persona lly, I always would rather error on the side of more creative and interesting then too concrete and limiting.
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0 # Anne-Marie Keown 2014-08-23 03:46
Keren, wonderful piece and food for thought indeed.
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0 # Keren 2014-09-18 11:30
Thank you.
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+1 # Sudhakar goli 2014-08-24 21:56
Hi Keren
Excellent article since i started reading about project management profession. Its a thought provoking and brilliantly said.
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0 # Keren 2014-09-18 11:31
Thanks for our feedback.
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0 # Muhammad Saadeh 2014-08-25 03:10
Very helpful and generous, thank you.
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0 # David HasburySnogles 2014-08-27 14:01

As a Senior IT PM myself, I thought this was for the most part excellent advice. I particularly liked points 1 (note taking) and 4 (being a journalist) as I find myself constantly battling to avoid these faults, especially in a work culture where this seems to be the norm and is expected!

Point 3 (on time, budget and scope) is also very much how the real world operates and I think any PM whether seasoned or fresh to the job would do well to heed your comments.

All in all an entertaining and thought provoking read - well done!

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0 # Stephen Wang 2014-09-03 20:51
Keren, this is wonderful, one of the most insightful summary I've seen on project management, especially when I've deeply felt the same thing.

And I can feel what a person you are from the words, integrity, smart, accoutable, not just for CYA.

Again, thanks for sharing that!
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0 # Bruce Harpham 2014-09-26 14:15
This was a a great point: "Great project managers don’t just report on the news, they drive the news."

Monitoring has value but it is far from the whole story!
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0 # Eliseu 2014-11-12 15:42
This site was useful for me thank you.
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0 # Oksana 2014-11-19 18:45
Beautiful article, loved it, got a lot of tips, thank you
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0 # Eduardo arrue 2015-08-03 07:26
Excellent article! I am using extract of it with my PM 's
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0 # Sumitra 2016-01-01 12:57
Very nice article, clearly is practical then being theoretical.
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0 # Brent schmierbach 2016-01-06 13:20
Keren, this is a fantastic illustration. It's somehow concise, but chocked full of relevant examples. Thanks!
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