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Author: Cindy Lee Weber

Project Management Leadership: Get in the Game

Feature Apr25 35368388 XSProject managers and sports are so intertwined that you hear common sayings like the following:

“That’s a slam dunk!”
“Just pass the puck (or “give me the ball”), I’ll put it in the net!”
“All I needed was a decent set up, and I could have slammed it home!”
“Who dropped the ball?”

Athletic team leaders and project managers share common attributes. The following three sports roles will get you thinking about how skills can carry over from the court/field/ice to the project room.

Volleyball Setter: Fixing the Problems

“You touch every other ball and, if you screw up, you only have one more person to back you up. You can’t go hide in the corner.” – Kerri Walsh, Olympic Gold Medalist

The volleyball setter has a strategic job; she’s the go-between, taking the pass from another player and setting to the hitter to complete the play. Similarly, the project manager (PM) coordinates the handoff between activities. The overall goal for both is to complete the objective.

The setter also reads two steps ahead of the play to ensure that the “set” of choice has adjusted to the course of the play. If the service pass is sloppy, the setter must move to the ball and make a calculated adjustment regarding how to set the ball to the appropriate hitter. Along the same lines, a PM must anticipate probable outcomes and plan for the risks that may materialize in a project. The PM may have to plan several activities ahead of time to ensure the effort is passed in an accurate and timely manner.

The setter executes the plan from the coach. Prior to each match, the setter has collaborated with the coach and the team to understand her team’s strengths and the opponent’s weakness. The setter must keep these in mind throughout the course of the match to ensure that she leverages the hitters for their respective side strengths, understands the blocker’s abilities (and cover if needed), and accommodate the defensive float if the course changes. A PM does likewise by assessing the team’s skill levels to ensure enough time is allowed for novices to “learn” and “do” at the same time. A PM requests different resources if the required skills are not present, reads the progress of the effort and goes to the project sponsor to solicit resource skills/needs.

The Quarterback: Leading the Pack

“Anyone can support a team that is winning – it takes no courage. But to stand behind a team to defend a team when it is down and really needs you, that takes a lot of courage.”  – Bart Starr, Legendary Football Player

The quarterback relies on his teammates to protect him and execute the play. The coaching staff has helped the team hone its skills, but the quarterback has to earn the respect and loyalty of his teammates as well as motivate and inspire them to elevate their performance. He must perform at a peak level to lead by example. If he’s a great leader, his team will follow. It’s no different for a PM; a good PM is a leader at his core. He elevates his game, and in doing so, his actions help bring out the best in his colleagues, ultimately lifting the whole team’s performance. He follows guiding principles of the profession, culture and the team.

Quarterbacks can call an audible when they see an opportunity to take advantage of a better situation, but not at the expense of losing what was planned first. PMs call audibles (paralleling tasks, pushing teamwork harder) when they see an opportunity to improve the quality, schedule or cost, but not at the expense of the scope of the project. Similarly, quarterbacks spontaneously improvise when things don’t go as planned by drawing on their training to make the best of an unexpected situation. Good PMs follow suit and pull up the contingency plan when they run into trouble.

Lastly, the buck stops with the quarterback. Even if the entire offense has a bad day, a good quarterback will take ownership of the outcome. This behaviour elicits respect and loyalty because he has the courage to report the truth and question what he could have done differently. Likewise, good PMs look inward first to see if they could have avoided a problem within the project. They report the truth in their project updates and present options to right the course.

Ultimately, projects, like football games, are won or lost by the team. Strong project managers, just like strong quarterbacks, can bring out the best in their teams and lead them to the win.

The Hockey Defenseman: Winning with Versatility

“Forget about style; worry about results.”  – Bobby Orr, Hall of Fame Hockey Defenseman

The thing that makes project managers essential to projects and their organizations is their ability to lead teams and make them feel like they are part of something special.

The defenseman in hockey can have multiple jobs on the ice. He either leads in the offense, stops the other team from progressing into their territory, or plays a key role in the power play (known as the power play quarterback). The versatile defenseman needs to know in which scenario he plays which role. For example, if the opponent has a high-scoring, aggressive line, he may act as a stay-at-home defenseman.  And, when his team has the advantage with the opponent in the penalty box, he plays quarterback and leads the charge. This player needs to be flexible, alert and able to adapt to a multitude of situations, including the minute-to-minute pressure of the game.

A PM plays a similar role. She must be adept at reading personalities to determine how to motivate her team members. In her role as an offensive leader, she’ll have to push and motivate. If she finds herself in a conflicting effort that is pulling and straining progress, she needs to understand how to keep moving ahead while defensively keeping the team from losing ground. The PM should also be positioned to identify when she has the advantage and leverage it to provide a higher chance of winning, and with a score that makes the customer happy!

The End Goal

Sports often provide highly relevant analogies to personal lives and careers. It is not a leap to extend these experiences from high school or intramural sports to day-to-day project management skills. After all, the project team is made up of project managers who all have something to offer, much like a sports team. And as Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

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Setting the Table for Effective Portfolio Management

Have you ever attended a dining event where the host had a perfect understanding of his guests, knew just how to arrange the event and delivered a beautiful dining experience? Or, you may have attended several different kinds of special events at their invitation and they always seem to get it right.   

The skills for setting the table for a dining event is not unlike the skills needed to deliver portfolio management to an organization. Three important skills will get you to the ideal portfolio management setting: 1) Your guests, their experiences and expectations; 2) the food and service costs; and 3) gathering guest taste feedback to make your next event even better.

Guests and their Experiences – Stakeholders and their Expectations

When you start to plan a dining event, you think about the guest list and consider palates and preferences. For instance, they may be frequent gourmet diners and have had broad exposure to different ethnic foods. There are also other considerations as you think about your potential guests: allergies, personalities, common interests, etc.

Similarly, when your organization starts to look at portfolio management as part of its service offering, you have numerous items to consider. You must understand your audience and stakeholders, and determine their level of understanding of portfolio management; it may be a common level of understanding or widely diverse. You also need to think about the company’s overall exposure to portfolio management, whether it’s rolled-up project reporting, idea intake or both. It’s also good to know if your company is a leader or follower, and what’s in it for them.

Back to your dinner plan. It’s time to think through the kind of menu you want to create and your end goal with the event. You may want to feed a large group in a short period of time, or create an intimate five-course fine-dining experience for a special occasion.

For your company’s efforts, you’ll determine what type of portfolio management to deliver and its overall purpose. You’ll work on the list of considerations, including the type of decisions your team supports – whether you’re a reporting team, audit team, if you’re helping align work to a company strategy, whether you support a chargeback system and more.

Understanding who is sitting at your table – whether it’s a dining table or a portfolio meeting table – will ensure a higher satisfaction rate when the experience is over and coffee is served. The team’s types of services and deliverables will depend on the functions your team will support. Knowing whether you serve the management team, the business team, the project teams, the resource managers or all of the above will determine the number and types of settings at your portfolio table.

Cost of Food and Labor – Portfolio Management Cost of Control

When planning a restaurant dining event, the chef needs to look at the cost of the meal as well as the cost of serving (or delivering) the meal. He considers the cost of ingredients versus the price for the meal, then determines the value and worth of the ingredients. For instance, serving fresh versus frozen can mean a lot to the quality of the overall meal.

Knowing which type of portfolio management your team will deliver, how much status reporting and what kinds of trending to collect for decision-making are just a few of the cost inputs to effectively run your team. You also need to consider the time it will take for idea intake, estimating at an idea level and balancing your portfolio forecasts. In addition, rolled-up status reporting and understanding how project change requests impact your current portfolios will impact your services.

Next is the type of table setting you’ll use. A buffet may work best if you’re serving large amounts of people and using a small serving staff. For a more formal affair, you may go all out with multiple forks and knives, cloth napkins, wine glasses, water glasses, a centerpiece, a chef, a sous chef, servers and bussers. You make sure you have the right venue, equipment and staff to execute the event and create the experience you desire for your guests. There is a cost of service associated with the type of menu you set, as well as your operational costs for space and equipment.

In addition, portfolio teams must account for the time needed to operate under organizational services or functions. These include, for example:

  • Auditing or quality checks
  • Phase gate reviews
  • Collection of measure and metrics/reporting/trending
  • Governance meetings
  • Project health facilitation
  • Portfolio idea management
  • Portfolio change control – balancing portfolios
  • Project staff augmentation or project rescues
  • Center of excellence (process and tool ownership)

Portfolio teams also determine which resources are needed for the team (in terms of people, processes and tools). Depending on the functions or services, you may need “super PMs,” financial analysts or program managers. You then locate which tools and processes will best enable your team. The cost of running an organization is called the cost of control. The level of this cost of control may depend on the risk tolerance level of your organization. General industry standards, depending on the portfolio management service offering, can run between 15–25% of total project spending. [1]

“How was your Meal” or “Is this Working?”

There’s a wide set of expectations around the dining experience. Informal, fast-food or buffet diners may not hesitate to tell their hosts how they feel, and yet these diners know they have little impact on changing the long-term results. A fine-dining experience may not include a server that solicits feedback, but results can be gathered by what is left on the plate at the end of each course. Either way, both types of dining experiences want repeat customers.

Whether your portfolio team is in place to manage idea intake, project health escalations or quality checks, or to manage the financial aspects of your portfolio, continuous feedback will help to refine the kinds of services, functions and deliverables (reports) that will help make the portfolio management offering better. Depending on your organization’s culture, you may solicit formal or informal feedback. The results should be a validation of what’s working and adding value, and what could be done better. What you do with the results is what will bring back customers to your portfolio table.

The Cleanup

Ensuring that you have a follow-up process for any of the services your portfolio team offers will lend legitimacy and credibility.  Just like you don’t want to eat off of dirty plates and torn table cloths, stakeholders want accurate reports, timely meetings and follow up to unanswered questions. Continuing to ask, “Is this helping you to make decisions?” or “Does this incite the correct behavior?” will help keep the table clean and ensure repeat customers.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Cindy Lee Weber is a highly motivated, dedicated and passionate project management professional experienced in both corporate and small business cultures. Her focus on maturing best practices, while providing practical solutions has been applauded time and again by clients.

Cindy believes in measuring success and provides strategic foundations for delivering on-time and on-budget implementations. She consistently leads large improvement efforts for clients, including detailed process improvement for governance, portfolio management process improvement, and process documentation and refinement. Her expertise includes: project management, project management office, portfolio management, project and portfolio framework and methodology, project management training programs, solutions implementation, and measures and metrics.

Cindy is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and an active member of the Project Management Institute’s Minnesota chapter

[1] Trissential LLC

Happily Ever After – Fairy Tales from the Land of Project Management

As project managers, we can find many common threads between our favorite fairytales and our profession, and can apply many of the lessons learned in these stories to our everyday projects. Read on for three examples of fairytales and project management scenarios that share important themes.

Hansel and Gretel: An Intended Path and Stakeholder Alignment

This classic fairytale tells of a poor woodcutter and his two children. Under the guise of fear of starvation, the children’s evil stepmother convinces their father to take them into the woods and abandon them. The children use crumbs and pebbles to mark the path back home.

In project management, the concept that two business sponsors (stepmother and father) are not on the same page about their goals is a common pitfall to unsuccessful projects. Not agreeing on the fundamental goals or desired outcomes of a project often leads the team down the wrong path. Politics and bad behavior can interfere with the intended outcome if all parties are not in agreement on the original goal.

Very often, the project manager is provided with very little time to plan or map progress. Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs represent a project managed at a “milestone level,” rather than at the task or activity level. A full project plan, including the schedule and sub-plans necessary for navigation, should be prepared before embarking on any journey.

Moral of the story:  Without a solid, agreed-upon plan, a team is bound to get lost, and project managers commonly find themselves retracing steps to the beginning to reset plans.

Cinderella: Politics in the Ballroom and Boardroom

One day, a messenger delivers an invitation to a ball. Cinderella is forbidden to attend, and is put to work helping her homely stepsisters primp for the event. When the sisters leave, and Cinderella is weeping by the cinders, a fairy godmother appears. She gives Cinderella a gown, horse and carriage, and beautiful glass slippers, but the catch is that the magic will expire before midnight. After a mad dash from the ball and a search for the girl who fit the slipper, we get a happy ending.

Often, project managers are handed ‘pet’ projects where a solution has already been selected, wrapped up in a shiny silver bullet in a time-boxed schedule, with an ill-equipped team. The sponsor insists that the project will be a success despite non-existent planning, and the project manager inevitably starts looking for a fairy godmother to save the day.

Passive-aggressive project sabotage and political motives often characterize the project manager’s experience with pet projects from the boardroom and beyond. In the end, the project manager is left to handle the outcomes from these behaviors. The project manager inevitably creates makeshift solutions (carriage, glass slippers), only to see them disappear or fall apart prior to go-live.

Moral of the story:  Projects don’t succeed magically; without support and planning, project goals are unachievable and pet projects commonly fail.

The Three Little Pigs: Building Solid Foundations

We all know the story of three little pigs who decide to make themselves houses. Two are lazy and use flimsy straw and wood, but the third uses brick. A hungry wolf comes along to “huff and puff” and blow down the first pig’s house of straw. The two pigs run to the third pig’s house — the one who took the time and effort to make his home out of sturdy bricks.

Building project management processes on solid foundations can help when the going gets tough. A project manager who follows best-practice methodologies anchors projects to proven practices. Project managers who don’t anchor to best practices can get lazy and look for ways to appease sponsors or team members; they forget that they are also ambassadors for the profession (which takes effort and passion).

When counter-productive or unexpected forces find their way into projects, and the project isn’t anchored to a solid foundation, project managers may find themselves running from issue to issue and risk to risk, without a safe place or shelter.

Moral of the story:  Without solid issue and risk management in place, side discussions, politics and rumors can take hold of communication plans and blow them down.

Back to Basics

Harkening back to these childhood stories and others, project managers are reminded of the basics: understand and manage stakeholders and expectations; always plan and then follow the plan; and stick to the foundations of project-management discipline. There is no wand involved, but when projects succeed, it’s magical.

As a practice manager in Trissential’s E2 Management practice, Cindy Lee Weber is a highly motivated, dedicated and passionate project management professional experienced in both corporate and small business cultures. Her focus on maturing best practices, while providing practical solutions has been applauded time and again by clients.

Cindy believes in measuring success and provides strategic foundations for delivering on-time and on-budget implementations. She consistently leads large improvement efforts for clients, including detailed process improvement for governance, portfolio management process improvement, and process documentation and refinement. Her expertise includes: project management, project management office, portfolio management, project and portfolio framework and methodology, project management training programs, solutions implementation, and measures and metrics.

Cindy is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and an active member of the Project Management Institute’s Minnesota chapter.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.