From the Sponsor’s Desk – How to Succeed Swimming Against the Current

“It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction”

Albert Einstein

Think about it! If you’re managing or otherwise involved with a project, why is it the way it is? Why are the goals what they are? Why does the scope include the features and functions it does and exclude others? What methodologies, processes and practices are being used to deliver the change? Why not others that have provided value in other circumstances?

You’ll find that projects where the answers to these questions are widely known and play an integral part in the ongoing management of a change have a much greater chance of success. That transparency lends clarity to the countless decisions that follow. And if the project is delivering a solution that deviates from the usual tried and true, that transparency is even more critical. That was the case in the Nuts for Cheese post. It’s also true in this story, How to Succeed Swimming against the Current.


The Situation

Randy Crane (also known as The Fearless Marketer) received a call from a small packaging company looking for his help. Randy is a sales and marketing specialist who has collaborated with companies to develop and execute their communication strategies and plans over more than 25 years.

The small company, let’s call them PackageCo, helped other organizations create packaging solutions for their products. It worked as a matchmaker, developing packaging designs, recommending materials and sourcing the appropriate equipment for their clients’ packaging needs.

PackageCo was being squeezed on price by its bigger competition, resulting in smaller and smaller margins and jeopardizing the long-term viability of the organization. The owner looked to Randy to help chart a new course that would put them on a new, firm footing going forward.


The Goal

To develop and implement a new operating model for PackageCo that would ensure its long term viability. The strategies, plans and relative priorities should be delivered within three months with implementation to follow as quickly as financially and logistically possible.


The Project

After their initial meeting, Randy arranged twice weekly meetings with the PackageCo owner, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes. The initial focus was on re-establishing the company’s goals.

The company owner was getting bombarded with day-to-day issues. Initially, it made it very difficult for her to keep her attention focused on the goal. The two short sessions per week set an established pattern, a rhythm, which allowed her to focus on the future, which gave her time to reflect, yet still deal effectively with the day-to-day.


The company had a small staff of six employees who were responsible for all aspects of the company’s operations. The owner and her staff were in daily contact on an ongoing basis. They had the same values, they shared a common culture and they all knew the operations and challenges inside and out. The goal of the sessions was to reset the owner’s frame of reference to a more sustainable future operating model. Randy felt that including other staff at this point would increase the resistance factor and impede progress. The owner agreed, but kept her staff appraised of the progress being made.


Randy started with a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). It was important to take a comprehensive view of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, to determine what internal and external opportunities were available and what threats they were facing. The analysis confirmed that the company had numerous opportunities to sell their services, but they were getting squeezed by their larger competitors on price. It also confirmed the need for changes in the products and services they were selling to differentiate them from the competition.


They then created a Strategy Diamond to address the following five elements: Arenas – Where to be active? Vehicles – How to get there? Differentiators – How to win in the marketplace? Staging – What sequence of moves to take? Economic logic – How to generate revenue and make a profit? The model included the main elements of a strategy, and how they fit together. These elements worked together to form a cohesive, overall whole.

During this process, Randy and the owner found that many manufacturers of food and consumer products were interested in composable and recyclable packaging, something that the competition was not offering at that time. Even though the cost of the packaging could be more expensive, they believed PackageCo customers could use this new found packaging to promote themselves as an eco friendly brand and help save the planet.


Finally, Randy and the owner created a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to promote the PackageCo as the only eco friendly packaging company on the planet and get the customers to believe that saving the planet was a worthy cause to be a part of.

With the SWOT results, the Strategy Diamond framework and BHAG top of mind, Randy and the owner set about evaluating their plan. They made a list of all the advantages and benefits that the customer could receive by converting to a new eco friendly packaging model. The list included more than thirty items. Not wanting to overwhelm the owners, they pared it down to the top ten.




They developed a list of prospects active in the Arenas identified in the Strategy Diamond exercise and created some simple marketing materials that were directed specifically at the prospects’ owners or senior executives. The contact was made through an e-mail marketing campaign with a link to a short survey and feedback form. Each company that responded to the survey was sent a nicely designed brochure outlining the benefits to the prospect’s company, their customers and the environment and included the Top 10 benefits their company would receive for participating in this unique program.

Randy’s focus throughout the process was to guide the way, to keep the desired end result always front and center, to provide understanding, to ask the questions that no one else was willing to ask, to anticipate potholes and pitfalls, to articulate points of disagreement and agreement and to celebrate successes.


The Results

The initial cut on PackageCo’s goals, strategies, plans and priorities was delivered within the three month target. PackageCo’s owner and senior staff were engaged and energized with the results. The company was pivoting from its traditional role of selling the usual packaging solutions to saving the planet with a commitment to compostable, recyclable and reusable solutions.

Randy required another six weeks to prepare the marketing materials and get the approvals from the PackageCo owner. Within two weeks from the day that they sent out the marketing materials and survey, they received the first positive response. Another eleven followed within fourteen days.


The initial strategy was to get one or two customers to convert to the eco friendly model and learn from that experience. After the launch of the e-mail survey, with twelve companies expressing interest. PackageCo’s salespeople, by now fully conversant with the benefits of the new packaging model, approached the interested companies. It was important to explain to the customers that the cost of their packaging could change but the benefits in increased sales and customer loyalty and retention should exceed any increased cost in the long term.


From the initial twelve potential customers, four decided to go with the new eco friendly model. The first company to make the upgrade was a large pet food company. They had always used a printed paper bag with a wax coating inside and outside. Even though the bag was made from paper, because of its printing and wax coating it was only destined for landfill.

PackageCo recommended a pulp based bag with the printing done with soy ink (food grade). The glue that was used to seal the bag was a natural based glue (also food grade). PackageCo’s study showed the overall compostability of the bag would take place over a period of 12 months to dirt in an industrial compostable facility.


The pet food company selected three target geographies for their test, in France, Germany and Austria. Over the six month test period, the sales in the test areas increased by 4% to 6%. That was enough of an increase for the company to deploy the packaging throughout the entire organization.

PackageCo documented the results and shared them with their customers and prospects. Within three months, there were four more companies ready to start a pilot project. Part of the solution also included a redesigned web site and a LinkedIn campaign to alert PackageCo’s current and prospective customers of the bold new way. Throughout the exercise, Randy helped facilitate the transformation of the vision and the delivery of the new reality.


How Great Leaders Delivered

Change is difficult. Fundamental change is even more challenging. PackageCo’s leader recognized the perilous situation they were in and the need for immediate action. They took it. With Randy’s help, the following approaches propelled them on their successful journey.


  1. Know your business – Randy helped the PackageCo owner tap into her own insights and the perspectives of customers and prospects to reshape the company’s directions.
  2. Seek outside opinions – Using the email marketing campaign and survey strengthened the company’s relationships with its customers and built a bridge for prospects to access their products and services.
  3. Use tools and techniques that have delivered results – Randy’s use of proven tools like SWOT, the Strategy Diamond and BHAG gave the owner comfort that he had the knowledge and experience to help her and her company. The tools also accelerated the delivery of the new strategic plan by providing a solid analytical foundation for their work. They didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
  4. Engage with staff, customers – Even though the company’s staff were excluded from the strategy deliberations, the owner’s regular updates kept them up to date. Their passion for the program grew as they witnessed the owner’s increasing enthusiasm for the new direction. Engaging their customers and prospects with the email campaign and survey and subsequent sales calls helped cement the relationships and build demand for their new world view.
  5. Use a 360 degree view – Through the use of the previously mentioned tools and the short, twice weekly planning sessions, Randy was able to lead the owner through a series of holistic views of the company’s current state and future possibilities. Each session built upon the previous work to provide a comprehensive, layered and shared understanding of current and future opportunities and the chosen way forward.


So, if you’re involved in a transformation or a challenging change with aggressive competitors breathing down your neck, consider the approach Randy Crane and the PackageCo’s leader took to survive and play a new day. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, a favorite best practice, or an interesting insight that can make a PM or change manager’s life easier, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights.

Arguing to Learn and to Win

The recent INC. article, Stuck in a Heated Argument? Follow the ‘ATL Rule’ to Ensure Everyone Wins[1] set me to thinking about how best to approach the way we manage major conflicts and minor disagreements, how we argue.

In my book, Managing Conflict in Projects: Applying Mindfulness and Analysis for Optimal Results[2] the message is to approach managing differences with clarity, while accepting the reality that there may be emotions involved, not being driven by them. This is emotional intelligence, the ability to be aware of and manage emotions. It is a foundation for healthy relationships, and healthy relationships include the ability to manage disagreements, whether they are small arguments or major conflicts.

The word conflict needs definition. The general definition from Merriam-Webster is “an extended struggle : fight, battle. : a clashing or sharp disagreement (as between ideas, interests, or purposes) : mental struggle resulting from needs, drives, wishes, or demands that are in opposition or are not compatible. conflict.” From Cambridge dictionary, an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles: There was a lot of conflict between him and his father. It was an unpopular policy and caused a number of conflicts within the party. His outspoken views would frequently bring him into conflict with the president.”

Here, the term conflict covers any kind of disagreement or struggle that starts off with opposing views. Managing conflict seeks to resolve the conflict.

The conflicts that make the news are beyond the scope of this article, though the same basic principles apply. Here the focus is on the kinds of conflicts that come up in organizations, projects and processes. The principles are:

  1. Step back to see the big picture and how your emotions, beliefs, biases, and mental models affect your perspective.
  2. Seek to understand your mindset, goals, needs, and wants and what influences them
  3. Seek to understand the other parties’ goals, needs, and wants and what influences them
  4. Be mindful of your words, behavior, and feelings, and their impact
  5. Assess the degree to which you can trust and collaborate with the others
  6. Promote a win-win attitude in which the parties jointly resolve the conflict
  7. Recognize that there are some disagreements that cannot be settled with a win for both parties
  8. Compile facts and opinions and examine and use them in decision making to resolve the conflict.

Arguing to Learn and to Win

The INC. article points out that scientific study shows we should “enter debates looking to learn rather than win.” Since it is very difficult for many people to give up winning, I think the right mindset for working on a disagreement is looking to learn and looking to win.

That opens the question of what it means to win. Does it mean getting your way? Or does it mean coming to the optimal solution to the problem at hand? For example, two designers in conflict about which design should be used in a project can collaborate to identify the objectively best design or they can battle one another to get their design accepted.

Researchers identify two primary mindsets that set a stage for the way arguments are addressed: arguing-to-learn (ATL) and arguing-to-win (ATW). In the ATL approach the parties cooperate to get a better understanding of the situation. It implies open mindedness to discover the resolution through research, dialog, and analysis.

In the ATW approach the tendency to believe in a single truth and to cut off or ignore debate in which conflicting opinions and facts are raised. Instead of discovering a resolution the ATW mindset often begins with the resolution, takes it as truth and argues for it with a closed mind.

Understanding the different mindsets and the benefit of using an ATL, the challenge is to work towards making an ATL mindset part of your conflict management process.



A Hybrid Approach

As with all complex social issues, there is no one right answer. Let’s not over-simplify and think that it’s either ATL or ATW. We can also argue to learn and win (ATLAW).

In projects meaningful arguments are about whether, why, how, who, and when things will be done. If the argument is not settled the project may be delayed or motivation and morale will be impacted. If the argument is not settled well, the outcome will be subpar.

Of course, there are other arguments about politics, religion, freedom vs. authoritarianism, the causes of global warming, etc. For these important issues, there may never be a resolution. But when it comes to deciding on a design to use, or a budget or schedule, there must be a winner.

We can take the position that the winner is not the person with the idea, it is the idea that wins. And if the best idea wins, then the people involved win, where winning means that their needs have been met. If the parties take an ATL approach they creatively discover a resolution that may blend elements of alternative solutions or pick one over another. The discovery results from the learning process. Then there is the perception of winning or losing



If everyone agrees as to what it means to win, and recognizes that learning improves the probability of winning, then the players will naturally take a collaborative approach facing the issue rather than facing one another.

But ego and closed mindedness get in the way. The emotional need to win, psychological tendencies to dominate and win, and not knowing of an alternative to win-lose confrontation make collaboration difficult, if not impossible. Getting past that barrier requires process awareness, self-reflection, coaching and training.

Look at your process.

  • Are the principles stated above realistic?
  • Do they naturally occur as part of a healthy flow that allows for differences and promotes win-win resolutions? If they do, be grateful and carry on.
  • If not, how can you subtly or overtly discuss the conflict management process to promote open-mindedness and rational thinking?
[1] Hobson, Nick, INC.
[2] Pitagorsky, George, PMI

Best of PMTimes: The Why What and When of a Decision Log

Can you relate to that project that feels like it has been dragging on a little too long?


Moreover, your team is sitting in a conference room drowsy from preparing the final touches when one perky creative soul, who by the way missed the first four months of meetings (thus why they are perky), pops up with a question ‘Why are we doing it this way? We should look at a different option?’

Once the collective groans subside, everyone starts in on a chatter contemplating a different option. “Wait,” you think, “it has already been hashed out!” Quick, where are your notes? Where is that email talking about a different option? Was it in the meeting minutes somewhere? “When was that again? February?” This is all too familiar. You can’t quickly find the results, and you desperately want to stop all of the cross-conversation and new found excitement that has roused up the room. Then you sit back and remember, “Ah yes, I have a decision log!” You swiftly scan it, find the related item and pound your gavel on the table to gain everyone’s attention. It will all be fine, we are on the right track, and we don’t need to spend another moment of discussion because it was already agreed which would be the best action. Phew!


Utilizing a Decision Log, which is a list of critical decisions agreed upon throughout the project, has not yet leaped into mainstream project management practice, although it has started to gain traction being viewed as beneficial for recording impactful decisions and serving as a central repository for those decisions.

Why Do It?

The concept is a simple one. Once a discussion begins regarding a project, decisions are being made with some decisions essential for the direction of the project. Documenting those in a central location can be of value throughout the project as a quick reference and communication tool to assure everyone is aware of the direction.

Decisions may not always be agreed upon by the team members. Rather than opening a discussion for debate each time the topic arises, it is better to resort to the documented decision and move on from the topic.


Additionally, these decisions may be made in a forum that does not involve all team members, and they may be hidden in meeting minutes or informal email messages. Providing a standard method to document and communicate decisions can assure everyone is aware, avoid lack of clarification, and can be used as a method to focus team members when debate arises.

Decisions can be revisited when necessary, and may even be changed when new information presents to the project. Team members who raise valid points that counter a decision should be heard and their opinion valued as it may offer a better course of action.




What Information to Include?

A decision log is a beneficial communication tool to assure all stakeholders are apprised of how a decision was reached, what other options were considered, and who is accountable for the decision. It provides guidance to the team members and can eliminate potential confusion. The format you use may be a spreadsheet, automated log, or another method that suits your environment.

The primary information to capture includes What is the decision, When was it made, Why it was made, and Who made it. Other information may be captured as well and may vary based on the project needs.


When to Include a Decision?

When to include an item in the log involves striking a balance between what is valuable to have recorded versus what is too detailed, and will take thought. As well as considering the overall audience, team members and project dynamics also consider these things:

  • Topics that are frequently debated or where there is often disagreement.
  • Decisions that may be confusing or not clear to all stakeholders.
  • Those made that impact the direction or future work of the project.
  • When alternatives exist, but only one must be selected.
  • Decisions made by leaders, or others outside of the project team, which will impact the work of those team members.
  • Those that impact what or how a deliverable will be achieved where it may be different than some stakeholders expect.
  • Items that may not seem significant but can cause issues if not understood.

As a project manager, you must judge what your stakeholders will view as too much detail. You also must consider not eliminating items that you think are valuable to minimize detail.


There you have it!

No one wants more documentation. That goes for the individual who must create and maintain it as well as the recipients who do not want yet another attachment to read. The value of the log is for the project manager to have a centralized location to capture items that may cause debate or slow progress or for those who are included to search for information on the project materials instead of hunting down the project manager. This can turn into a time-saver and worth a try it on your next endeavor!


Published on January 23, 2017.

Best of PMTimes: The Five Goals of a Project Manager

As a project manager, you need to manage people, money, suppliers, equipment—the list is never ending. The trick is to be focused. Set yourself five personal goals to achieve. If you can meet these simple goals for each project, then you will achieve total success.

These goals are generic to all industries and all types of projects. Regardless of your level of experience in project management, set these five goals for every project you manage.


Goal 1: To Finish on Time

This is the oldest but trickiest goal in the book. It’s the most difficult because the requirements often change during the project and the schedule was probably optimistic in the first place.

To succeed, you need to manage your scope very carefully. Implement a change control process so that any changes to the scope are properly managed.

Always keep your plan up to date, recording actual vs. planned progress. Identify any deviations from plan and fix them quickly.


Goal 2: To Finish Under Budget

To make sure that your project costs don’t spiral, you need to set a project budget at the start to compare against. Include in this budget, all the types of project costs that will accrue, whether they are to do with people, equipment, suppliers or materials. Then work out how much each task in your plan is going to cost to complete and track any deviations from this plan.

Make sure that if you over-spend on some tasks, that you under-spend on others. In this way, you can control your spend and deliver under budget.




Goal 3: To Meet the Requirements

The goal here is to meet the requirements that were set for the project at the start. Whether the requirements were to install a new IT system, build a bridge or implement new processes, your project needs to produce solutions which meet these requirements 100%.

The trick here is to make sure that you have a detailed enough set of requirements at the beginning. If they are ambiguous in any way, then what was initially seen as a small piece of work could become huge, taking up valuable time and resources to complete.


Goal 4: To Keep Customers Happy

You could finish your project on time, under budget and have met 100% of the requirements—but still have unhappy customers. This is usually because their expectations have changed since the project started and have not been properly managed.

To ensure that your project sponsor, customer and other stakeholders are happy at the end of your project, you need to manage their expectations carefully. Make sure you always keep them properly informed of progress. “Keep it real” by giving them a crystal clear view of progress to date. Let them voice their concerns or ideas regularly. Tell them upfront when you can’t deliver on time, or when a change needs to be made. Openness and honesty are always the best tools for setting customer expectations.


Goal 5: To Ensure a Happy Team

If you can do all of this with a happy team, then you’ll be more than willing to do it all again for the next project. And that’s how your staff will feel also. Staff satisfaction is critical to your project’s success.

So keep your team happy by rewarding and recognizing them for their successes. Assign them work that complements their strengths and conduct team building exercises to boost morale. With a happy motivated team, you can achieve anything!

And there you have it. The five goals you need to set yourself for every project.

Of course, you should always work smart to achieve these goals more easily.


Published on May 12, 2010.

Dealing with Failure and Setback as a Program Manager

As a program manager, it is inevitable that you will face setbacks and failures along the way. While failure can be difficult to cope with, it is a natural part of the process of innovation and progress. By understanding how to handle failure effectively, you can turn setbacks into opportunities for learning and growth. Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to work on multiple programs of varying degree of scope, budget and schedule and have seen my fair share of setbacks, and I wanted to share some tips and tricks from my experience to help develop and hone your program management skills:


Understand how to handle failure: As a program manager, it is important to understand that failure is a natural part of the process of innovation and progress. When failure occurs, it is important to identify the root causes, learn from the experience, and take corrective action to prevent future failures. To handle failure effectively, it is important to have a proactive approach and be willing to take risks and try new things. It is also important to have a culture of continuous learning and improvement, and to encourage team members to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.

When I had suffered a failure on a project early in my career, I questioned if I was meant for this career. However, my mentor at the time encouraged me to reflect on the experience and consider how I could have approached things differently. They then had me apply this learning to my next project – which resulted in a much more successful outcome. Now, following each major milestone in a program, I conduct a postmortem to evaluate if I need to alter my execution method for continuous learning.


Report out openly and honestly: As a program manager, it is important to regularly report on the progress and status of your program to stakeholders, including team members, upper management, and clients. This helps to keep everyone informed and ensures that the program is on track to meet its goals and objectives. There are a variety of tools and techniques that can be used to report status, including project management software, status reports, and presentation software – the tool itself is not that important, what is important is that the stakeholders of your program are aware of progress. When failure occurs, it is important to communicate openly and honestly with team members about the challenges and setbacks that the team is facing. This can help to build trust and maintain team morale, even in the face of setbacks.




Understand how to hold team members accountable: As a program manager, it is also important to hold team members accountable for their work and ensure that they are meeting their commitments and deadlines. This could involve setting clear expectations and goals, tracking progress and performance, and providing feedback and support as needed. There are a variety of tools and techniques that can be used to hold team members accountable, including performance management software, regular check-ins, and performance reviews. It is important to understand how to use these tools effectively to ensure that team members are meeting their commitments and contributing to the success of the program.


Take corrective action: Once you have identified the root causes of failure and learned from experience, it is important to take corrective action to prevent similar failures in the future. This may involve implementing new processes, procedures, or tools, or providing additional training or support to team members. By taking corrective action, you can help to reduce the risk of future failures and improve the chances of success for your program.


Communicate effectively with technical team members: As a program manager, you may often be working with technical team members who have specialized knowledge and expertise. To effectively communicate with these team members, you need to be able to understand and speak their language. This may involve learning technical jargon and concepts, or working with technical experts to translate technical information into terms that are easier for non-technical team members to understand. In the event of setback or failure this skill helps speed up the root cause process.


Understand how to maintain team morale: When setbacks and failures occur, it is important to maintain team morale and ensure that team members remain motivated and engaged. This can be challenging, but there are a variety of strategies that can help to maintain team morale, including:

  1. Communicating openly and honestly with team members about the challenges and setbacks that the team is facing
  2. Providing support and resources to help team members overcome these challenges
  3. Encouraging team members to take ownership of their work and to take risks and try new things
  4. Providing opportunities for team members to learn and grow
  5. Recognizing and celebrating successes and accomplishments, no matter how small

By following these tips and tricks and fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement, you can effectively deal with failure as a program manager and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth and success.