Posted by: projectsinpractice | May 27, 2012

A Cautionary Tale: When Good Communication Goes Off Track

Bonnie here: Good communication is important on the smallest of projects. My co-author Jim Ewing and I are in the middle of a very small project: designing the cover of the comedic thriller that we are about to publish. Things were chugging along when suddenly design elements were in a big messy pile like the catch of the day. As our protagonist, Juice Verrone, would say: “Is this some kind of a joke?” Sadly, no. Our project was derailed (temporarily) by poor communication.

Here’s how it all started. Jim and I decided to use a design competition web site, 99designs.com. The project started down a familiar path. When Jim created the competition, he posted information that sounds a lot like a project summary: a book cover design that would work in color and grayscale for both print and eBook (the goal and scope rolled into one), the price level (the budget,) a description of the novel’s plot, ideas we had, a sketch I had drawn (some requirements.)

The source of the problem arose early on. The design competition runs a specific way and we followed that process. During the first round, people submitted designs. Jim and I discussed the entries, provided feedback, and received revised designs. We rinsed and repeated over the several days of round one. It was all very agile. Round two was similar, although our feedback became more specific and detailed.

As a side note, several of the designers were from other countries. This international competition was a crash course in communication issues due to cultural, geographical, publishing, and other differences. Who knew book spines run in different directions in different countries? It was also interesting to see how our novel got renamed by non-native English speakers. The book title, “Fresh Squeezed,” morphed into Freshly Squeezed on a few entries.

We picked a winner, in effect, the solution for our project. And we did explain that the real work was now beginning. We were going to work with her basic design and iterate to the final cover. This is when things got shaky. We made specific requests but the results that came back seemed to be further off-track. Colors that had been correct in previous iterations were suddenly wildly off base.

Jim was the point person so he tried reducing the number of changes for each iteration. He asked the designer to go back to an earlier revision that had the colors we wanted. But the results were still off.

Jim and I were confused and frustrated. Then I thought of a technique that Stephen Covey recommends. Instead of descending deeper into micro-management, I suggested he say “Help me to understand why we are having problems with the colors.” Turns out that the three-dimensional fish on the cover is created in one program. Then the colors and other effects are added in a second program followed by some clean-up steps. And finally that polished image goes into the book cover file. Every time we asked for a change to the fish, she had to jump through all those hoops (with the potential for glitches.) No surprise, those steps took her quite a bit of time–for every individual request we made.

Understanding her process clarified the situation a great deal and showed the way to a more effective approach to making changes. I suggested that we back off and work on the fish without color effects to get its shape and facial expression the way we want. Then, move on to applying the color — once. With the fish complete, we move on to the other elements of the cover. Finally, when all the elements are finalized, she lays them out on the book cover.

All along, we felt like we were communicating. But messages weren’t getting across. When we went from brainstorming into “production,” we were really moving from an early project phase (completed prototype or proof of concept) into project execution. We should have taken some time to plan how we were going to work, ask the designer questions about her process and how we could work with her most effectively.

The moral of this story: communication is crucial and requires careful planning, followed by care and feeding–even in small projects like our book cover. Remote or multicultural (or multi-anything) teams complicate the process. Finally, we can learn a lot about managing big projects from small projects we perform every day, which brings us back around to the importance of lessons learned! The cover of “Fresh Squeezed” isn’t ready for prime-time just yet, but I’ll post the final result in a few weeks.

Read more about communication in Chapter 11, “Communicating Information,” of Successful Project Management (which won a Merit Award at the international technical writing competition of the Society for Technical Communication.)

Talk back: Have you had experience with poor communication turning into bigger project problems? What did you do about it? How would you prevent these problems in the future?

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Teresa here: When project management consultants land a meeting with a prospective client, it serves them best to think of it not as an interview, but as the initial meeting between two companies who can partner to their mutual benefit.

As a consultant, you want to make the most of this initial meeting and drive it toward the point where the client is convinced you’re the project manager designed to manage the new project: the project management match made in heaven!

Here are some tips for preparing for that first crucial meeting.

  1. Research the company. Research the company as well as the department you’re meeting with. Learn as much as you can about the type of project you might be asked to manage. If this industry or type of project is new to you, do even more homework. Draw commonalities from your past experience to foster the conversation and prove you can manage a project in this situation.
  2. Prepare questions. While doing your research, jot down questions you have for the client. The nature of the questions will depend on how much advance knowledge you have of the potential project. The questions not only direct your preliminary research and your drive toward getting the information necessary to prepare a proposal, they show the client you’re already an active participant in this project. You’re already thinking like a partner.
  3. Show and tell. Consider taking some kind of “show-and-tell” piece that can demonstrate how you initiate, plan, execute, manage, and close your projects. A recent project notebook is a good place to start. However, project notebooks typically contain proprietary information and are often too large to be practical for this situation. You might prepare a “dummy” project notebook based on a real one with proper names and extraneous detail removed. Another alternative is to assemble a notebook of templates, forms, checklists you use through various processes. The point is to show the potential client that you are well-schooled in all aspects of project management and that you are organized and methodical, with tools and processes that you’ve developed through your experience and can lend to their effort.
  4. Prepare a leave-behind. Because you won’t leave your “show-and-tell” piece with the potential client, prepare a leave-behind for the client. This should be something concise for the client “to remember you by.” This can be your resume or company brochure. One idea is a list of past clients, the projects you managed for them, the budget, and any available indicator of project success. If you work with associates, perhaps include summaries of their skills and background. The point of the leave-behind is to show the client you’re a professional outfit with a successful track record.

At the meeting itself, your preparation pays off. Maximize your opportunity with the following tips.

  1. Take an active part. Remember to present yourself as a business owner seeking a potential partnership. Don’t be passive, just waiting for the client’s questions, answering them, and waiting for the next one. Instead, actively engage in the discussion. By all means, answer the questions, but follow up your answers with questions of your own. Don’t take over the meeting, and certainly take cues from the client about the best approach. Aim for more of a conversational give-and-take than an interview-like Q&A.
  2. Sell yourself. Within this fruitful conversation, sell the project management skills, background, and services you have to offer. Most of all, sell yourself! The personality and demeanor you demonstrate during this meeting gives the client a great sense of the kind of project manager you are. The client should be left with a good idea of how you would relate to the team members, customers, and other managing stakeholders.
  3. Identify project details. If it hasn’t already been the sole topic, guide the discussion to the upcoming project as soon as you can. You don’t want the client to dash off to the next meeting without your knowing the particulars essential to developing your proposal. Find out as much as you can about the project scope and if any schedule or budget has already been imposed. Does the organization have quality control or risk management processes? Is a built-in team already in place? If not, where would team members come from? What limitations do you need to consider? What assumptions will you have to make?
  4. Learn the project rationale. Is this a pet project of the executive vice president? Is it the solution to an identified problem? Does the project capitalize on a new opportunity? Does it fulfill a goal in line with the organization’s strategic plan? Does the organization have a strategic plan? The answers to these questions will clue you in to the organization’s maturity and its level of steadiness or impulsiveness. You might also get hints of political realities in the power structure. These clues can be predictors of roadblocks and challenges you might have as you manage the project.
  5. Walk through the project. Paint a picture for the client that illustrates what your first steps would be, based on the information you’ve just gathered. Then briefly walk the client through the phases of this project as you envision it so far. Also highlight those details that distinguish you as a project management consultant. Where you see challenges, relate how you solved similar problems in the past. Find every opportunity to demonstrate how you are the ideal match for this project. You want to leave the client with the impression that they’ve found the perfect project manager for the new project.
  6. Highlight your added value. If you provide more than project management, describe these options. Perhaps you are a skilled facilitator in strategic planning or root cause analysis. Maybe you provide project management training or mentoring. Your expertise might be setting up a project management office or assessing an organization’s project management requirements and helping them transition toward a more efficient model. Anything that adds to your value as a project manager can set you apart and make the client see you as an amazing opportunity for the organization.
  7. Schedule the proposal. Tell the client you now have enough information to develop a proposal, and indicate when you’ll have it ready. Try to schedule the next meeting so you can present the proposal in person. When the client asks about your rate, explain how you charge, whether it’s by the hour, a flat rate, or something else. Don’t be tempted to give the client a “ballpark” estimate. Even though the client might say you wouldn’t be held to it, that number is out there, and you’d have to work that much harder to justify your real estimate. However you charge, explain how you arrive at the bottom line. Give a brief overview of your contract terms and invoicing. Provide just enough to let the client know your worth and that you’ll quote a more-than-fair bottom line given all the value you’ve already demonstrated.

The initial meeting with a prospective client is a great opportunity to introduce yourself, prove how you would add value, and demonstrate that you’re the perfect match for the new project. The next hurdle is to develop a well-informed and competitive proposal, present it, and have the client accept it. Soon you’re both signing on the dotted line. Score!

p.s. I’m leading a related “table talk” at the STC Technical Communications Summit in Chicago this week. My talk, titled “Transforming an Initial Client Meeting into a Signed Contract,” is scheduled for 8:30 am Tuesday, May 22.

Talk back: How do you distinguish yourself in a first meeting about potentially managing a new project? If you’re a consultant, what do you do differently than you might if you were interviewing for a staff project management position?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | May 13, 2012

Are You Leading If You’re Going in the Wrong Direction?

Bonnie here: Have you ever gotten jazzed up listening to an executive talk about what a project or program is going to do for the company? Big things, I tell you! This project is going to jet-fuel the organization! Go team! Then, you’re tapped to manage the project. As the excitement wears off, the realization dawns that you have NO IDEA what the project is really supposed to do.

Precise Leadership, a presentation by Executive Leadership Group at the 2012 PMI Mile Hi Spring Symposium, talked about how project managers can be successful by bringing clarity to a project. The emphasis of this approach is on uncovering the big picture of the project.

The first step is to understand the purpose of the project or program. That makes sense. But, in many instances, executives toss out vague goals cloaked in stimulating words, followed immediately by the directive “Get going!” Then, they revel in the warm fuzzy feeling they get watching the burst of activity that ensues. You probably know how that will end.

What you need are clear results that the endeavor is supposed to deliver. Results-based philanthropy was one example provided by the presenters, Wendi Peck and Bill Casey. Instead of a goal of raising as much money for a charity as possible, results-based philanthropy starts by identifying a desired result, raises the money for that result, and then uses the money to achieve the result. Teresa mentioned that the grants she goes after for the nonprofit library system in her area want to know the results or outcome of the project that would be funded by the grant.

Knowing the desired results delivers all sorts of benefits. The focus is on achieving results. That focus elevates everyone’s perspective to a more strategic level. Racking up hours or expenditures doesn’t mean squat if you aren’t getting closer to the desired results. In addition, you can prevent scope creep, because it’s easier to determine whether work supports the results. Team members understand why they’re doing work so they can be creative in how they achieve results. They’re also accountable for those results, so executives don’t need to micro-manage.

Now, you have a list of results to achieve. Everyone’s feeling pretty good. But you burst their balloon by asking “What is the right result?” Stephen Covey shares my favorite example of the importance of this question in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Someone looks up from their work and says “We’re going the wrong way!” The response is “Shut up! We’re making great progress!” You might run the most efficient project and deliver every result, but if the original goal was off the mark, the project will be a failure.

I liked the presenters’ take on the right result: a sweet spot somewhere between what you do and your lofty ideals. For example, doctors do physical exams. At the same time, they’re lofty ideal may be to make people healthy. The right result might be the middle ground of helping people make informed healthcare decisions.

The third step is to identify success in such a way that the results are indisputable. The bad news: The simplicity of an indisputable result is inversely proportional to the amount of thinking and discussion required. Is your desired result to decrease the cost of customer support by 10 percent, shorten calls to an average of less than 5 minutes, reduce average wait time to less than 4 minutes, or increase customer retention by 25 percent? Another challenge: you don’t want to saddle the organization with bureaucratic procedures for measuring those results.

Finally, you need to define some restrictions on those indisputable results. Some people are known for delivering exactly what you ask for, not what you intended. That is, if they can find a way to weasel around a result, they will. For example, if you’re trying to reduce customer service costs, you might want to specify that the results are achieved without a decrease in customer satisfaction. In most cases, 1 to 3 restrictions suffice to protect the results.  A test that the presenters recommend is to ask whether taking a restriction off the list makes the result easier to achieve. If the answer is yes, the restriction is probably warranted.

Learn more about some aspects of leadership in Your Project Management Coach. Chapter 3, “Getting a Project Off the Ground” talks about articulating a project goal and defining success criteria.

Talk back: Think about a project you’re involved with. Do you know what the results are for that project? Are they the right results? Do you know how you will prove that you’ve achieved them? Do you need any restrictions to ensure that you truly achieve the desired results?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | May 7, 2012

Improving on the Wheel: Lessons Learned

Teresa here.

Reasons abound for skipping the lessons learned part of the project mop-up phase. A colleague of mine always carries out successful projects that are notable for their creative brilliance and a fun spirit of collaboration. In spite of this, she shirks the debriefing process at the end.

“I can’t change the past,” she says. “So why would I want to rehash everything that went wrong?”

As for me, I’m often guilty of shutting the old project down as quickly as possible in order to start a new project right away. Sadly, I also fall prey to just being bone-weary of the old project and not wanting to think about it anymore. It’s far more stimulating to escape the old problems and start fresh with a new project that has no sticky issues (yet!).

Whether you refer to it as lessons learned, debriefing, or post mortem, you and your team use the project review process to determine what went well and should be repeated for the next project. The process also looks at those aspects of the project that can be improved next time.

These areas of improvement can elicit criticism, real or perceived, constructive or not, and that can lead to the source of our dread. After all, you’re asking everyone to articulate specifics about what could have gone smoother or mistakes you and your team made. Even if you did everything perfectly, considering what should be done differently next time forces you all to confront others with supreme diplomacy. It can be an exhausting balancing act.

What made me a true believer was the big potluck party my husband and I used to have each year. We’d have 100+ people over to the house for food, drinks, games, swimming, live music, dancing, and sometimes karaoke. One year a guest offered astrology readings as her contribution. Another year another friend offered helicopter rides with his flight instructor. Because it was an annual shindig, when we started planning, I’d dig out my project plan, notes, and menus from the previous year — essentially my party project notebook. Using the last plan as the basis to start the new party plan kept me from having to rethink everything each year.

However, I also quickly found that there were details that neither my husband nor I could remember a year later. Did we send out the invitations two or three weeks in advance? Did we make one or two pots of chili? Which appetizers were devoured immediately and which ended up as copious leftovers or garbage? How many friends did we draft as “Event Staff,” and what were their jobs?

So doing the “potluck party post mortem,” typically the day or two after the party, soon became part of the fun. We’d list details of what worked, and what we’d do better next year. We never felt regretful or criticized. Instead, we got a kick out of reliving the party details. We felt affirmed about what a great time we all had and how smoothly everything went. We also felt confident that next year, this fabulous party would be, amazingly, even better!

It’s that aspect of continuous improvement that I like so much about the lessons learned process. Not only are you not reinventing the wheel with each new project, you’re actually improving on the wheel. Really, you’re improving on previous improvements to the wheel. Therefore, the wheel becomes more and more advanced in a shorter span of time.

If you’re using another project manager’s project notebook complete with their lessons learned feedback, not only are you improving on that wheel, but you’re getting what amounts to a “Vulcan mind-meld” of project knowledge.

It’s best to collect lessons learned every step throughout the project lifecycle. You can also lead a constructive lessons learned meeting at the end. Then capture this information in a knowledge base or final report. You’ll improve your own projects, enhance your team members’ professional development, and streamline similar projects done by other project managers. Best of all, you’ll capture those essential details, like the best delivery restaurant that kept the team happy on those death-march nights, that no one will otherwise remember a few months later.

Read more about the project review in Chapter 22, “Don’t Forget Lessons Learned,” in Your Project Management Coach.

p.s. I’ll be giving a presentation at the STC Technical Communications Summit in Chicago later this month. My talk, titled “Learning Lessons from a Completed Communications Project,” is scheduled for 4 pm on Tuesday, May 22.

Talk back: What tends to stop you from carrying through with the lessons learned process? What is the most value you’ve found from the process?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | April 29, 2012

What is Excellence in Leadership?

Bonnie here: I’m going to continue the leadership theme — mainly because I have a lot to report on the subject. I recently attended the 2012 PMI Mile Hi Spring Symposium, the theme of which was “Leadership: Winning strategies for achieving project success.” I didn’t yawn once, not even after the great lunch buffet. In fact, I got goose bumps a couple of times.

Pat Williams, Senior VP for the Orlando Magic, gave an inspiring keynote speech about leadership based on his new book, Leadership Excellence: The Seven Sides of Leadership in the 21st Century. Although I can take or leave watching professional sports, I admire performers of all ilk — from actors to Cirque du Soleil acrobats to professional athletes. These folks have to perform their best no matter whether they’re injured, didn’t get enough sleep, or face crises in their lives. In team sports as in projects, the team has to perform as a, um, team and that means someone has to lead.

Now, I’m pretty good at getting myself motivated, unstuck, out of ruts, past obstacles. Which is pretty important for someone who’s self-employed. I have had some success motivating teams as I mentioned in an earlier post. However, I am in awe of leaders who can inspire teams to beat overwhelming odds, come back from demoralizing setbacks, and achieve more than they even dreamed possible. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.

So I thought I’d summarize what Mr. Williams says are the seven things that leaders in the 21st century must do to excel. (I plan to share the wisdom I picked up from other speakers in future posts.)

What are these characteristics of leadership excellence?

1. Vision. No surprise there. What is surprising is how often vision is missing. Vision helps everyone focus. It gives you energy, enthusiasm, and passion for the project at hand. Vision helps you finish, because you know what you’re trying to achieve.

2. Communication. A leader doesn’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell of succeeding if he or she doesn’t communicate well with everyone involved. One of Mr. Williams recommendations is a favorite of mine: Speak to an audience in their language. (If I want my dog Maia to do something, I better be talking duck jerky.) Be clear, concise, and correct. Leaders must be motivational and inspirational. They communicate optimism and hope.

3. People skills. Some people think leaders are in charge. In reality, leaders work for the teams they lead. Leaders must be visible and available. They listen, ask questions, and do what they must to empower people to deliver.

4. Character. Integrity and honesty are crucial. Leaders with character build up their emotional bank accounts (a Stephen Covey concept) with their people. When the going gets tough, teams are willing to work through the issues. Another aspect of character is humility. To me, this links to the idea that leaders work for their teams. Excellent leaders make sure their teams shine.

5. Competence. Although leaders are humble, they must be good at what they do. They build teams, solve problems, sell themselves, and sell their ideas. They are life-long teachers and– so they don’t run out of material– are also life-long learners. Mr. Williams talked about being a life-long reader. He talked about how much reading you can do simply by reading an hour a day.

6. Boldness. Lots of people make decisions. Leaders make the best decisions they can and don’t look back.

7. A serving heart. Leaders gave authority in order to serve. You’ve heard the saying “Power corrupts.” Excellent leaders have power, but don’t fall into using if for their personal gain. They use it to achieve others’ goals, to better the world around them.

Learn more about some aspects of leadership in Your Project Management Coach. Chapter 3, Getting a Project Off the Ground” talks about articulating a project goal and objectives. Chapter 10, Setting Up a Communication Plan, discusses guidelines for good communication. Chapter 16, Transforming People into a Team, talks about ways to turn individuals into a team and how to build relationships with people.

Posted by: projectsinpractice | April 24, 2012

New Project Resolutions

Teresa here: I find few things more optimistic than the start of a new project.

Like a happy new year, a new project is a fresh opportunity to do things right, to benefit from the hard-won lessons of the past. The project charter is still a blank page. The work breakdown structure and project schedule are further down the road. The team is yet to be formed.

The possibilities can be intoxicating. But they’re not illusory. A strong well-considered beginning paves the road to a successful project. As Aristotle said, “Well begun is half done.”

Although this quotation doesn’t prove out literally in the project schedule (wouldn’t it be great if it did), certain project initiation activities are essential to give the endeavor its fighting chance. So just like new year’s resolutions, consider these four new project resolutions.

  1. Discover the problem to be solved.
    All too often, people propose a solution before understanding the core of the problem. Resist. Look at the issue with fresh eyes. Do a  “why-why” analysis to understand the problem and its root cause. If there’s a disconnect between the cause of the problem and the project, have a heart-to-heart discussion with the project sponsor. You might save the organization a huge amount of money and time. Even if you can’t change the trajectory of a misguidedly conceived project, you will have had your say. Plus, you might be able to do things within the project that can still address the root cause of the problem.
  2. Align the project with the organization’s strategic goals.
    Understand how (or even whether) this project is furthering the strategic goals of the sponsoring organization. An executive might have proposed the project haphazardly, without any thought to how it fits into the larger strategic context. Then when the project is canceled or otherwise unsuccessful, there’s head-scratching or finger-pointing about the reasons why. If your project unequivocably aligns with at least one of the strategic goals, your purpose will be clear, and you’re more likely to get the budget and resources you need. If the alignment is fuzzy, you can strive for clarification or propose a change.
  3. Articulate the project goal and objectives.
    Write your project goal to describe the desired outcome or achievement. The project goal becomes the guiding light for you and the project team throughout the project. Develop the associated objectives so that they’re Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-based. If you haven’t already figured this out, these form your “SMART” objectives.
  4. Identify success criteria.
    As soon as a project ends, you know whether it was on time and within budget. However, a truly successful project can result in increased profit, decreased costs, improved customer service, or some other fundamental measure of organizational progress. Upon initiation, work with your stakeholders to determine the project’s success criteria. Establish when and how these criteria can realistically be measured. You might have to wait as long as 12 to 24 months after project completion.

If you are steadfast with these four project resolutions, you’ll have an auspicious start. Of course, project initiation is far from done. You need to gather requirements, develop the project scope, obtain stakeholder approval, and prepare the project charter. Only then can you start the project planning processes, in which you create the work breakdown structure, estimate work, prepare the budget, plan for resources, and build the schedule.

Amid the thrill of initiating a new project, you need discipline to step back. These four resolutions allow you to envision the project as a whole, and see it in the larger context of the organization. Depending on what you find, you might have to ask tough questions and have potentially difficult conversations.

However, the fact that you initiate your projects on such a strong foundation will tremendously add to your value as a project manager who completes successful projects with measurable results.

Read more about project initiation in Chapter 3, “Getting a Project Off the Ground,” of Your Project Management Coach.

Talk back: What element or ingredient do you find essential to starting a new project well?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | April 6, 2012

Learning Lessons on Leadership

Bonnie here: I’m going to follow Teresa’s lead and talk about leadership. Her post brought back memories of past experiences with leadership, mine and that of others. It also made me reflect on whether I’ve learned anything over the years.

My first memory: I was a bad employee. I wasn’t a bad employee because I did bad work. On the contrary, I did great work and customers loved me. But I always had problems with the management in the companies I worked for. I was told I had a bad attitude — and I did. (Since I’m a terrible follower, I had better learn to be a good leader.) Then, I read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and realized the source of my “problems.” Most (not all) of the managers and executives I knew didn’t think win-win. They focused on making sales and making money, not on making sure customers got what they needed. Covey talked about treating employees the way you wanted them to treat customers. I didn’t see that happening either.

That long story shortened, I have had my own business since 1997. When I quit, a good friend said “Well, now, your boss is an *$$hole, but at least you know what to do about it.” He was right. But I digress.

I used a quote on leadership from Dwight Eisenhower in my book, Successful Project Management:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

How do you get people to do something you want because they want to? My two cents, give them something to believe in. A mission, if you will.

Not long before I quit to start my company, I was promoted to manage a customer support group. Making the company a success wasn’t exactly something I could believe in. But making our customers successful so they would remain our customers was. So, without really thinking about it, I worked on  a win-win with customers and my team to deliver a win for the company.

I fought for training and raises for my people. My previously demoralized team became re-energized and customer support improved. As it turns out, the training also helped the members of my team keep their jobs or find new ones. And the raises set them up to obtain higher salaries at their new jobs. The company didn’t survive, but I don’t think I could have done anything to turn that around. I have led other teams with good results. Having something to believe in still seems to work.

Now let’s jump ahead to my writing career. It is a success, but my leadership style hasn’t been. Like Teresa, my standards are very high. My clients love my work. But I have taken to warning potential co-workers about my great expectations. Hmm, Teresa’s comment about pushing too hard really hit home. And it reminded me of another great Eisenhower quote:

Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

I still have something to believe in: providing engaging, clear guidance and instruction to my readers. So why have I failed to lead people who work with me on writing projects? My first thought was deadlines. Books, articles, and other writing projects are rife with tough deadlines. But all projects have deadlines. They didn’t bring out the worst in me at other times. With my writing, I willingly flog myself to meet deadlines because I was the one who accepted them. (See what my friend meant about my boss being an *$$hole?) I would turn to other people for help only when I had deadlines I couldn’t possibly achieve by myself –when I was stressed, when I was at my least nurturing. It wasn’t pretty.

I ‘m starting a new phase in my writing and project management career. I’m going to need help to get everything done. So this soul-searching on leadership couldn’t come at a better time. I’m trying to not only learn from my mistakes, but grow from them.

I haven’t changed my high expectations. But instead of beating people over the head with them, I’m setting those expectations as a goal. I let people know that this goal may take time and practice to achieve.  I’m using projects with less challenging deadlines as a training ground. That way, I have the time to train, guide, coach, and support to my teammates, just as the end result is a book or course that provides training, guidance, coaching, and support to my readers.

So, have I learned? I’ll ask my teammates after we finish the next few writing projects.

Read more about working with a team in Your Project Management Coach, Chapter 16, “Transforming People into a Team.” In Successful Project Management, Chapter 10 is “Managing a Team.”

Talk back: What leadership activities have had the greatest impact on your teams? Do you lead better in some situations that others? What can you do to improve your leadership skills?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | March 31, 2012

Reflections from a Time Machine

Teresa here. Imagine yourself in a time machine and travel back to a time and place when someone did or said something that influenced you in a positive way. Who was it? What did they do? How did you feel about it?

Teresa as kidI was challenged to do this as a participant at a recent workshop. Without too much thought or effort, I found that my time machine had transported me to fifth grade at Georgia Brown Elementary, standing before my teacher, Mrs. Gustafson. She was returning a graded homework assignment — a short story. “When you go to college,” she said, “you might want to study journalism.”

Yep, it’s Mrs. Gustafson, I thought, as I sat in my imagined time machine. She put a big, impossible idea in my head that grew fast and large like a grove of bamboo. That idea put me on a particular path.

Then another image appeared. Now I was in my twenties and working at National Semiconductor. It was my first professional job. I was talking with my boss, Kevin. “You should write about this project for this trade journal,” he said.

“But I’m not ready to write for a magazine,” I replied. The uncommon thrill I felt was a mix of pride that he thought I could do this, and dread that I might actually have to try.

“Yes, you are. Do it.”

Over the following weeks, Kevin kept after me to write the article. I finally did. It was too long and sounded too academic. But I worked it, shaped it, made something out of it. Kevin offered some light editing, and then I sent it in. It was accepted, and soon afterwards, actually published!

Out of the time machine and back in real life, I reflected on Mrs. Gustafson and Kevin. They both saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. And they pushed me to push myself; to test the boundaries of my potential. They didn’t allow the limitations of my insecurities, my environment, or my inexperience become excuses for not driving forward.

This made me reflect on my leadership style. I like to think of myself as fair, communicative, nurturing, positive. My standards of quality are high, but as a result, unfortunately, I can also be strident and inflexible.

Remembering the far-reachingly positive effects that Mrs. Gustafson and Kevin have had in my life, I would hope that I can really see potential in my team members, understanding that everyone has individual gifts and unique approaches to work. I hope I can push team members when they need to be pushed, and believe in them when they need some faith.

Rocket LaunchIt’s important to find that balance between pushing just enough, but not too hard. Anyone who’s worked with kids, especially teenagers, knows this all too well. Don’t push enough, and nothing happens. Push too hard, and you get pushed back in the form of resentment and rebellion.

There’s also the matter of confidence in our team members’ capabilities. We need to articulate our high expectations to them, and then let them know that we believe that they can achieve. We can then step back and give them the space they need to learn, to reach, to grow.

In my case, I’m making a greater commitment to sharing duties of increasing complexity with my team members. This involves documenting standards and taking the time to train and coach, but I realize this is an important investment in human resources. Not only is this developing the people I work with, but this will eventually free me up to challenge myself in other areas. So the sharing, as often is the case, ends up not about giving, but about receiving — by my helping to develop others, I’m really developing myself.

Think about those in your own life who have positively influenced you. How did this person make you feel about yourself? What was the result? In turn, have you had the opportunity to give someone else the gift of your confidence in them and their potential?

The thing is, you might never know. Mrs. Gustafson’s comment to me might have been an offhand remark that she never thought twice about. But her single sentence placed me solidly on a trajectory that I value to this day.

Whether you actually hold a leadership title — project manager, supervisor, coach, mentor — or whether you are “simply” respected as a person of knowledge and insight, you have more influence than you’ll ever know.

Read more in “Transforming People into a Team,” Chapter 16 in Your Project Management Coach.

Talk back: Is there a teacher, a boss, a project manager, or someone else who had a positive effect on your life? What did they do? What was the result? How did it make you feel? Is there something they did that has affected how you lead others?

Posted by: projectsinpractice | March 25, 2012

Project Conference 2012: Drinking from the Firehose

My first experience with  “drinking from a fire hose” was in college. The three days I spent in Phoenix at the recent Project Conference 2012 brought back those memories. For me, the conference was a whirlwind of attending presentations, meeting exhibitors, catching up with old friends, and meeting new ones. I had good intentions of posting tidbits to the blog during the conference, but each night when I got back to my room (so much earlier than my technical sales hey days,) I was so exhausted that the pillow won out. Better late than never, here’s my PC12 memoir:

Monday: Travel ran as if it were managed by a project manager with unlimited resources, Project Server, and an administrator with a Starbucks IV. My flight landed early and I hopped on the sweet light rail right to the convention center just in time for the Microsoft Project Users Group reception.

The MPUG award presentation with Matt Davis and John Riopel from MPUG Project Talk and Ludovic Hauduc, GM of the Microsoft Project business unit, kicked things off perfectly. When I chatted with Matt and John during the conference, they boasted that they could answer any Project question, so I plan to call into their show, join the fun, and ask them tough questions I can’t answer. In addition, the MPUG event was the catalyst for me to meet one of the award winners, Gerald Leonard, who presented a session on and blogs about critical chain project management. I’m a big fan of critical chain and the theory of constraints and now I’m psyched to try out ProChain, an add-in for Microsoft Project that offers critical chain features.

Gantthead’s welcome reception was a few hours of sipping cocktails, nibbling tasty snacks, and swapping business cards…..uh, doh! I knew I forgot something.

Tuesday: I walked over to the convention center in unseasonably cool air. Lucky me! A quick breakfast and caffeination and I was ready for the conference to begin in earnest. By the end of the opening keynote, I was pretty jazzed and it wasn’t the coffee talking.

The presentations and demos that Microsoft delivered during the Tuesday and Wednesday keynotes were awesome. As a former demo jockey, I know how tough it is to design demos that make people crave your products and then have those demos actually work — with one glitch left in to prove that the demo’s running in real time. The Microsoft folks did all that. I collaborate with a lot of people and I thought I was geekily adept with my collaboration tools. After I saw Keshav Puttaswamy, Christophe Feissinger, and a few others share info from Project to Project Web App to Visio to OneNote to Office 365 from desktop to laptop to Windows tablet to Windows phone to — um, I don’t even remember the rest — I’m ready to play and share well with others. I was also impressed that Microsoft even did a demo with an iPhone! Boy, have times changed.

Christophe put up with some good-natured razzing over his moustache. Ludo compared it to The Artist, but I had hoped Christophe would slip into an Inspector Clouseau persona.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday:

It was tough to choose which presentations to attend. The content and quality were overwhelmingly good. Danny Smith from Marquette University talked about project portfolio management that works. Marquette has set up a sweet-sounding environment. However, Danny’s unflappable character seems like it would help any system run smoothly. (I also liked his comment about how shiny things pull focus away from the important stuff. So true for executives and the rest of us.)

Mary Ellen Kliethermes and Sharon Harness from Ameren talked about how to implement Project Server with little or no consulting money. The bottom line on that presentation: use virtual servers (VMWare) to eliminate hardware cost, tackle the implementation in chunks to see what does or doesn’t work, and be prepared to really work at it.

Speaking of Project Server and project portfolio management, there’s a new approach that should make this technology more accessible to organizations — hosted Project Server in the cloud, in some cases, with pre-built environments. Lots of companies don’t have the hardware, people, or money to put together their own Project Server environment. Hosted systems offered by Project Hosts, Bemo, or SharkPro could be the answer. For example, subscribe for the length of time and number of users you need; or get a ready-made configuration; or expand without having to line up more hardware, software, or system administrators. I need to research these offerings in more detail.

On Wednesday I enjoyed a half hour of fame signing books for a long line of patient fans. Because my blog-partner, Teresa Stover, couldn’t attend, I signed my book, Successful Project Management, and Teresa’s Microsoft Project 2010 Inside Out. I also signed a few copies of Your Project Management Coach, a new book co-authored by Teresa and me and published by Wiley. (Thanks to Microsoft for putting the book signing together.) During my book signing slot, I was lucky enough to finally meet Carl Chatfield in person. Carl’s and my books, Project Step By Step and On Time! On Track! On Target!, were paired for several years as a project management kit. His Step by Step book is one of my favorites. People told me he is recommending my updated and improved edition, Successful Project Management. Thanks Carl!

That close encounter with Carl spawned an idea. I felt honored to have people stand in line to shake my hand, even if I’m really not a celebrity. But several other of my favorite Project authors were present, so I did the paparazzi thing and snagged some pictures with yours truly. Sadly, the photo with Eric Verzuh of Fast Forward MBA in Project Management fame was too blurry to include.

However, here I am with Eric Uyttewaal who wrote Forecast Scheduling, a great book with wonderful tips on scheduling with Project. I did catch up with Gary Chevetz and Dale Howard from ProjectExperts (but didn’t remember to take a picture). And I also finally met Larry Christofaro in person. He has written some fabulous articles over the years. He told me about his newest perspective on using Project and  I’m looking forward to learning more.

Now I’m home and back to work. Since you’re reading this post, I obviously finished my #1 priority. Next up is emailing and sending LinkedIn invitations to the people whose business cards I gathered at the conference. (Bonnie’s project management tip of the day: If you promise to do something for someone, do it!)

After that, I’m going to talk to Teresa about testing out the collaboration and sharing tools Microsoft demoed. Watch for more on that subject in a future post.

Posted by: projectsinpractice | March 16, 2012

Project Conference Envy

Teresa here:

Phoenix Convention CenterI don’t get to go to the Microsoft Project Conference 2012 happening in Phoenix next week. The Microsoft Project team hosts this conference, and next week it’s THE place to be for project management professionals, managers, administrators, and developers from around the world.

I feel like I’m missing out. So to console myself, I thought I’d pretend I was going, and pick out the highlights of what I’d do if I were there.

First off, I’d catch up friends and colleagues at the Monday night welcome reception. I’d also seek out and connect with a number of virtual friends and colleagues, to finally meet them in person.

At the keynote presentations on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, I’d sit up close, hoping for new insights and creative sparks about using Microsoft Project. I’d especially look for news about the next version of the product, what features it might have, and when it might be available. There’s nothing in the conference buzz that leads me to believe there will indeed be any big announcements, but one can hope.

I’d lurk at the Ask the Experts reception, scheduled for 11:45-1:45 pm Tuesday, March 20. It’s billed as a Q&A session on about 10 topics from the Microsoft Project team and other experts. I love hearing questions about Project and Project Server from users in the trenches of a variety of industries. It’s all fodder for future articles and books.

If I were there, I’d be signing books at the Microsoft booth in the Exhibit Hall. Bonnie will be signing her “Successful Project Management” book 1-1:30 pm on Wednesday, March 21. Since she contributed to my “Microsoft Project 2010 Inside Out” book, she’ll also be signing those in my absence. Be sure and stop by and meet The Bonnie in person!

I’d chat with as many users as I can, learn the industry they’re in, and quiz them on how they use Microsoft Project. What I’ve learned from past conferences is that some of the biggest challenges project managers face as they use Microsoft Project is resource management, reporting, and implementing Project Server in a way that works for all stakeholders.

And what a deal…I’d definitely take advantage of the free Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) testing for Microsoft Project 2010, Managing Projects (Exam 70-178) and Microsoft Project Server 2010, Configuring (Exam 70-177).

With more than 90 presentations available, I’d go to all of the 11 breakout sessions, hard-pressed to make my choices. I’d be on the hunt for best practices and new ideas, as well as clever tips and tricks to make my projects more efficient and successful, and also to share with others.

The sessions are divided into three tracks: business value and insights, product sessions, and deployment and administration. These would be my top 11:

  1. Modeling Traditional, Serial, and SCRUM Techniques in Project 2010, with Sam Huffman
  2. Critical Path 2.0, with Eric Uyttewal
  3. Designing with Project’s New Manual Scheduling Type, with Sam Huffman
  4. Resource Management – Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together, with Collin Quiring
  5. Managing Resource Supply and Demand with Microsoft Project Server 2010, with Tony Zink
  6. Project Scheduling Revisited: Performance Tuning Your Scheduling Practices, with Glenn Searle
  7. Turning Project Data into Real World Reports: An Overview of Business Intelligence Options, with Mike McLean and Andrew Lavinsky
  8. Project and Project Portfolio Management That Works, Danny Smith
  9. Unleashing the Value of Earned Value: Applying Schedule and Cost Controls to Measure Project Performance, with Andrew Lavinsky
  10. Making the Most of Project Professional when Managing Multiple Projects, with Cindy Lewis
  11. Delivering Microsoft EPM Success: Essential Steps to Map People, Process, and Tools, with Vadim Bogdanov

So as the next best thing, I intend to follow along. Experts, speakers, and participants will be blogging and microblogging, using the Twitter hashtags #MSPC12 or #MSProject. Bonnie will certainly post at least one blog (possibly more) here about the conference next week.

Read more about Microsoft Project 2010 Inside Out and Successful Project Management.

Talk back: Are you going to next week’s Microsoft Project Conference? If so, what are you most looking forward to?

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