Skip to main content

Author: Chris Merryman

6 Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Being a Project Management practitioner is a choice many of us have willingly made (and enjoy!). Others may have joined the ranks due to necessity from their previous role being eliminated, outsourced or some other form of extinction. Regardless of our past experiences we’ve all made our share of mistakes and all have a unique relationship with the term “Lessons Learned”. In this article I share some of the lessons I learned the hard way. We can read as many books as we want, interview everyone we’ve ever known and read every Google article that exists on the topic of how to be a strong, influential and creative type person so we can thrive in the Project Management environment but nothing can truly replace being in the hot seat. Here are a few things I hope make sense to those either in the role already or thinking about taking on the role.

1. Never take outside influences for granted

This one I think we all take for granted. We assume that by providing regular status reports, staying on schedule, under budget and controlling scope creep is a sure way to ensure your Project makes it to completion. We sometimes forget about the outside forces that can turn a normal working day totally upside down and in the morning we have a thriving Project but in the afternoon we no longer have a Project! We need to ensure we fully understand our Sponsor and Stakeholders concerns not only for the outcome of the Project but what are we trying to accomplish in the first place? Is it competitive advantage over a product just released? Are we trying to claw our way to the top of the industry by providing the best in class service? Or is this a pet project of the Sponsor and when the signs of another Project are looking dire they redirect everyone to help get it back in good health? We need to keep our eyes and ears open and ensure we understand as much as possible as to why our Project exists.

2. Staying quiet can be a powerful tool

You might in a situation where you encounter a difficult team member or a higher level manager that you report into and have tried everything possible to convince them of something. You reference books, literature on the web, industry best practices and other examples of success to prove your point yet nothing is working to change this person’s mind. Sometimes we just need to sit there and stay quiet. Don’t lead into it with a question like “What do you recommend?” Instead when the person is through with their rebuttal just stay silent. Silence is an amazingly powerful tool. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where this has happened you know exactly what I am referring to. The uncomfortable silence that lingers for many seconds longer than the pace of the meeting has been taking place in. I’ve experienced it many times. Our minds start to race. What happened? Why is no one talking? Is someone about to really fly off the handle? What is going on? It must be used strategically and sparingly.

3. Trust

I think we can all agree that this can be applied in just about any situation. Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship whether it’s personal, professional or something in-between. Trust is something we must not only establish as practitioners of our profession but also something we must continuously foster and promote.

4. Change is Good

Change is good! It’s necessary! Change is all around us and in today’s ever-faster moving environment we can’t try to stop it. Trying to stop it will likely be more harmful than embracing it. Now, not all change is good though. We need to look at it through our “lens of reasonability”.

Is it something that can positively benefit the Project?

This can take many forms, it could be a risk mitigation, it could lower cost, it could give our product or service the competitive advantage that we need in order for our end product to be a success!

If it’s something that impact the Iron Triangle (scope, time, cost) what can give?

Can we reduce scope? Can we get more time? Can we get more money or are we saving enough money that maybe we can fit more in before the deadline?

Is it something that could negatively impact the Project?

This is where we would break out our risk register and get to work on mitigation strategies which shouldn’t be anything new, it’s a core competency of the Planning, Execution and Controlling phases.

Does it boost team morale?

Never underestimate the power of good news! Even something small can sometimes break the stress that is building up during difficult times. The team needs all the positive support it can get.

If you were the customer would you want it?

Customers can and at some point usually do have unrealistic expectations. That’s nothing new. Put yourself in their position for a moment though. Would we, as the customer, benefit? Is it something that can buy you goodwill in case we run into a pitfall later down the road? Customers can be difficult, but in the grand scheme of things they are the ones that fund the project.

5. Most of the time there’s no point in making a point outside of individual interactions

This one too I think can transcend across all aspects of our life. If you really do feel the need to ensure you are getting your point across I strongly suggest you take it up with the person one-on-one. The only exception I would make is if you are in the position of managing a life-critical Project (i.e. Aviation, Medical devices, Hazmat services, etc). In situations involving these types of products or services there should be a very clear line and most likely there are laws that you have to comply with anyone as a minimum safety measure. Even in this environment though I would strongly encourage using this sparingly and if at all possible defer the discussion to a one-on-one session in the immediate future.

6. Don’t EVER say “I’m sorry you feel that way”

I wish I would have known this early on. I only made the mistake once. For those that have made this same mistake I am betting you only made it once too. There is no way to get out of this one unscathed. I’ve never seen people react to something as harshly as this statement which I have found is routinely followed by “How should I feel?” or a derivative thereof in a very negative and insulting tone. It’s only a mistake you make once. Try not to make it at all though because if you do there’s a high probability you’ve burned your bridge with that person for a very long time.

The list can go on for quite a while. We’ll all make mistakes, it’s inevitable. I’m hoping that this article gets to you in time to help from making similar mistakes but if not I hope you smiled and maybe even laughed as you remember experiencing one, if not all, and how it changed your style afterward.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Connecting with Your Project Sponsor

Connecting with a Project Sponsor is something that you may struggle with at some point in your career. There are sponsors who you establish a natural emotional connection with, who can always be reasoned with, and who provide support through even the most difficult times. But then there are sponsors who you can’t get on the same page with, no matter how hard you try. Without question, support from a project sponsor is critical to a project’s success. You may have completed a few successful projects and are now working your way from tactical and necessary projects to high-visibility and strategically important ones. Even with your proven track record, you inevitably encounter a Sponsor you are unable to connect with. When this happens it is time to step back, evaluate your strategy, and use key emotions and skills to build a relationship with your sponsor. Examples of key emotions and skills that should be leveraged are: empathy and willpower. Both are important in order to overcome not only your day-to-day obstacles but also the one(s) keeping you from connecting with your Sponsor. Empathizing with your sponsor and other key stakeholders will allow you to better understand their needs and motivation in order to ensure a complete understanding of what they are truly trying to accomplish with a given project. Your willpower will also be tested like never before as you will need to work through obstacles and issues without the confidence in knowing the sponsor is there to provide guidance whether directly or indirectly. Your negotiation skills and consistently proving your competency will also be needed more than ever in order to establish the most basic human connection with your sponsor: trust.

  1. Empathy

    Empathy is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion. Empathizing is to sense, understand, and experience others’ thoughts and feelings without experiencing them yourself. Empathy is often referenced in challenging situations where one feels the pain or distress of another without words being exchanged. It can occur with a simple glance of a person going through a difficult situation or a physical struggle; the feeling of a true connection to that person even though you’ve never met. That is empathy. Watching someone sacrifice their reputation and possibly career to protect their team and feeling the same sense of sacrifice and fear they are going through is another example of empathy. When working with your Sponsor take a step back and listen to them. If they are sharing a story give them your undivided attention and try to place yourself in their shoes. Only by listening and putting aside your preconceived ideas and emotions can you connect through empathy. This connection is a major step in establishing someone’s trust.

  2. Willpower

    Willpower is described as many things: self-determination, self-restraint and self-confidence. Willpower is an incredibly strong emotion that can get you through the toughest of situations. People use willpower to push themselves to accomplish a goal: for instance, seeing a soldier come home after incurring a horrific injury and their determination to walk again, watching a loved one cross the finish line of a race they never thought possible, or spending your time reading and researching to better understand how to handle difficult situations. When you cannot seem to connect with a Sponsor, it will take a considerable amount of willpower to gain their trust. Focus your energy and stay determined to break through the barrier that is keeping you from connecting. By persevering, you will find that you may have underestimated the strength of your willpower.

  3. Negotiation

    Negotiation is a skill that you will really need if you wish to establish a connection with a difficult Sponsor. Through your experience as a successful Project Manager, you continue to refine and hone your negotiation skills. A prime example is convincing a team member, stakeholder or customer to do or provide something that they are not obligated to or, similarly, bringing team members together to overcome a personality conflict and refocus their efforts to accomplish a goal. Examples can be found at any point throughout the life of a project. The door is never closed to negotiations. Project Managers working in a matrix work environment can appreciate the importance of honing negotiation skills. In a matrix environment where project priorities don’t align with a functional manager’s priorities the Project Manager must negotiate to secure the time of the people needed for the project while ensuring the functional manager’s goals or priorities are not at risk. This is rarely a one-time event and is not necessarily something that can be planned making it a constant test of your negotiation abilities. By successful negotiating challenges like these you will be one step closer to delivering a successful project and by doing so it will help establish trust and your Sponsor’s confidence in your competency.

  4. Competence

    One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of competence is “the knowledge that enables a person to speak and understand a language.” Without being competent in your field you cannot be successful in your career. Would you trust a surgeon that you did not feel was competent in his/her specialty? I certainly would not. To expect a Sponsor to trust you falls along the same line. You need to prove that your successful track record up to this point was not by luck—it was by your skill. You must figure out what motivates your Sponsor and focus on this to allow them to place their confidence and trust in you for such projects. A few examples of motivational factors: influencing their nomination and placement on the Board of Directors for a well-known charity or City Council committee, or showing their commitment for political gain in a local or regional election. Financial incentives are routinely motivational factors as well. Significant cash bonuses, stock options, or a partnership being offered upon successful delivery of your project are all examples of financial incentives. By identifying your Sponsor’s motivational factor(s) you can better relate the significance and severity of issues you encounter throughout the life of the project so they too will put their support behind you in order to quickly overcome the obstacle(s).

Connecting with a difficult sponsor is a challenge that can take a significant amount of time and effort. By focusing your efforts on the qualities and skills outlined above, you will be able to make a connection. Up to this point in your career you have harnessed these emotions and skills to overcome obstacles of every magnitude—this challenge is no different. Remember to continue empathizing with those around you, stay determined and focus your willpower, leverage your experience in successfully negotiating, and continue to learn and prove your competence in difficult situations like these. By doing these you will no doubt secure the trust not only of the sponsor but also of those around you.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

The Evolution of Project Management and Scrum: Scrum2

The next step in Scrum’s evolution is long overdue. Almost everyone who has spent a few years in the software development world has been exposed to a taste of Scrum. Each organization has their own twist on its implementation, but without a doubt, Scrum is the most recognized and utilized Agile methodology available today. But with Scrum’s use we all hear about its limitations and why it doesn’t work. For instance, “How can I secure people and capital with the lack of planning that Scrum encourages?”, “Scrum won’t work for my distributed model”, “Scrum is too unstructured, we need a reliable approach”, and unfortunately, “unstructured” is one of the more mild words I’ve heard on the topic. The list of limitations goes on. And likewise, in the project management world we hear similar sentiments. The latest Project Management Institute (PMI) Certification (PMI-ACP) is a good step in the right direction but doesn’t bring the two methodologies completely in sync. Being from a project management background and also being a Scrum Master for several teams utilizing the Scrum process, I can attest to some of the shortcomings of both methods; however, combining the two methods could be the evolutionary change that the software development community and their sponsors/stakeholders have been looking for.

In relation to product development, agile methodologies vary widely in their approach. The literature for Scrum is extensive and has many recommendations of how we can encourage a team to self-form all the way to getting a product to market with a minimal number of bugs and getting paying customers lined up. It is not a detailed guide like PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) which provides a fairly detailed guide to get from inception to closeout, but Scrum goes into more depth than the PMBOK when it comes to software development. When speed to market and quality are vital to a project or company’s success I think Scrum handily beats the PMBOK approach. With the speed of software product release, the low tolerance of customers to bugs in the code and the difficulty of securing capital, Scrum provides a faster and more reliable method to get from idea to market with the least amount of overhead.

Sponsors and stakeholders have additional goals in mind: the desire a product to sell profitably with the least amount of overhead possible. For a project to be funded we need capital, and in most organizations a plan must be created to show how not only the product and quality targets mentioned earlier but also how efficiently we can utilize the capital we are seeking, profit margin, and return on investment to name a few. Scrum doesn’t address or focus on this. PMI’s PMBOK, on the other hand, has documented several approaches to address these concerns. To secure capital, we can use project scoping methods, cost-benefit analysis models and a host of other tools that the business community is familiar with and has come to trust over the years.

Let’s imagine we’re not successful in securing capital. Without capital we have no way to get people dedicated to our project, thus no product to develop. We have an idea but no one to work on it. Some teams are lucky enough that they can form with just a few cycles each week to get a product at least to a reasonable inception phase. This applies to start-ups all the way to corporate environments. Maybe we have to do the work after hours, or maybe we have time to spare during work hours. Either way, people have to be motivated to make it work. This is where the “self-forming” aspect of Scrum comes into play. Project Management takes a more formal approach to organization and makes an assumption that people can be assigned to and will work on the project. In situations where this is not the case and we need to find a way to get people together to work on a project quickly, I think Scrum’s approach wins, hands down.

Once a team forms, we can have a few quick meetings for estimating and planning. Both Scrum and Project Management methodologies have many books covering this topic. The main issue is getting to the point where we can have these meetings, and again, I think this is where Scrum’s recommended approach is more manageable, especially for smaller organizations with limited resources.

Distributed team models are one of the topics lacking in the current Scrum literature. There are many ideas but not many proven answers. Project Management has addressed this only from a high level but much more so than the Scrum community. Distributed models can work in the Scrum environment; it’s just a matter of how you structure your teams. Although many believe that co-located teams are required to make Scrum work, this logic is fundamentally flawed.. For instance, even the first iPhone had a distributed team and we’ve all heard about the level of secrecy that Apple keeps on its development. To have a distributed team, we just need to employ a different set of tools. Several reliable and proven collaboration tools exist that bridges the gap between distributed teams and make things much more manageable than they were a few years ago. We can share documents, code, even the same workspace with the right applications. Distance should not be an issue, regardless of the team(s) utilizing Scrum or Project Management methods.

The limitations of either approach in the software development environment are well documented and can be found with a simple Google search. While neither on their own can address each limitation fully, I think we can see that when we start taking different tools and practices from each methodology we can address many of these issues. This is where I believe the next evolution in the software development environment will take place. The blending of proven Scrum and Project Management methods available today can not only move us beyond these limitations, but also make our projects nimbler, cheaper and “lighter-weight” than ever before thus getting our products to market faster, cheaper and with higher quality. Who wouldn’t want that?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.