What Makes a Good Project Manager?

I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of having achieved my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.  The last 20 years have seen tremendous change in the field of project management.  Google had just started a couple of years earlier, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet.  The changes in technology and in our society have presented a lot of challenges and opportunities to project managers.  However, the fundamental truth of project management remains.  Project managers get things done.

Project managers are, by our very nature, people who get things done.  We organize, we communicate, we hold people accountable.  We define the scope of our projects and pursue our goals with dogged determination.  We don’t have all the answers, but we know where to go get them.  The phrase “it’s not my job” is not in our vocabulary.  When something goes wrong, we step up to the plate and we bring people together to tackle the biggest challenges.  We are responsible.  We are flexible.  We are determined.  We are… project managers.

Technology changes.  People change.  Culture changes.  And so do project managers.  But our core function has remained the same as with the large weapons development projects of World War II.  If you ask any project manager “how do you eat an elephant?”, the response will invariably be “one bite at a time”.  The tools we use have evolved and improved.  The human resources we rely on may change their priorities, their focus, and their capabilities.  But we still need to find the right resource for the job, we still need to break down the project into manageable chunks, and we still need to set priorities and deadlines.  And we need to make sure everyone who needs to know, knows.

I have fewer project management years ahead of me than behind me, and in all this time I will share that the most important tool in my toolbox has been the relationships that I’ve built with my teams.  Whether project resources, resource managers, stakeholders, or fellow project managers, developing strong relationships with them has helped me complete more projects successfully than not, and has helped me grow in my career. 

If you are just starting your journey into project management, or you are a seasoned veteran, mind the relationships with all the people that have a role to play in your project.  Keeping open, honest lines of communication with them will go a long way to helping you be a successful project manager.  Oh, and be sure to get your PMP.

Bridging the Gap Between IT and the Business

Information technology (IT) has come a long way in 30 years. In many ways technology is as ubiquitous as the telephone or the calculator. But is technology helping the business ultimately succeed?

The goal of a great IT organization should be to help the business achieve its goals through the application of technology. So if the business is to manufacture widgets, how can technology be applied to make more widgets, faster and cheaper? And how can technology help distribute the widgets so they end up with customers?

In order to do this, IT leaders need to understand widget manufacturing. And hence the dilemma. Does the IT Leader focus on technology or on the business?

The easy answer is both, but reality is a bit more complicated. As with many other professions, people rise to the top when they’re good at what they do. The top sales rep gets promoted to sales manager. This dynamic ignores the fact that the skills to be a top sales rep are not the same as those needed to be a good manager. A similar dynamic applies to IT leadership jobs. Often the best technologists are promoted to leadership positions without regard to their abilities to understand, and therefore support the business.

This is not to say top technologists don’t make great IT leaders. What I am saying is that there needs to be a balance between technology and business acumen. IT organizations need highly specialized technologists, and they also need highly skilled business leaders. Only then can they bridge the gap between IT and the business.

This also applies to the top leadership role in an IT organization. The Chief Information Officer (CIO) needs to be an integral part of the senior business leadership team. His or her job is to understand the business and apply technology to help the business succeed, or to make sure he or she has the IT team necessary to accomplish this goal. And the journey begins with making sure everyone in the IT organization understands the company vision, mission, and strategy. IT folks are smart. They’ll get it. But you need to show them the way.

Consider business workshops for your IT teams. With a continuous training program aimed at improving business skills and understanding, you help bridge the gap. And consider seeding savvy business leaders in your IT teams. The technology can be taught, but the business knowledge and experience can be invaluable. And ask yourself this one question every day. What did I do to help the business succeed?

Organizational Change Management in Projects

Professional Project Managers are experts in change management. Project Change Management. Changes in scope, budget and schedule are identified, analyzed, approved and woven into the project plan.

But Organizational Change Management (OCM) is a different concept which is just as critical to the success of the project. What impact will the project product have on the organization? Is the organization ready to accept the product of the project? Are users ready for the new system? How do you measure acceptance of the new system?

OCM needs to be part of any modern project plan. There needs to be specific attention paid to the impact the project will have on the organization. User training is just one element of organizational change management. Successful project managers need to go several steps further. They need to identify the different communications avenues and key stakeholders throughout the organization that can have an impact on the acceptance of the new system. Are they in the loop? What are their concerns?

Different departments will have different concerns regarding the project product. One department may be concerned about having adequate training for its users, but another department may be more concerned with the impact on data flows, and another department may be more concerned with the impact on organizational processes. A great project manager will uncover the specific impacts on each of the key stakeholders and their groups, and have a plan to address each one individually.

In addition to training, things like requirements sessions to allow for user input, lunch and learns, and the design of specific impact statements to measure the impact of the project product in a quantifiable way. If you can’t measure it, you can’t see it. The use of surveys and other customer feedback collection methods are a key component of any effective OCM strategy.

As with every other project management discipline, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are several OCM methods and practices that have been proven successful in the past and are taught as a business discipline. There is one developed by an organization called Prosci.  It is the called the ADKAR model: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcements. This model has been used successfully by many organizations and has a well-defined training and delivery mechanism. There are other models as well, so there is no need for Project Managers to reinvent the wheel when deciding how to handle OCM in their projects.

Organizational Change Management is a critical success factor for modern projects. A good project manager will be mindful of it. A great project manager will apply proven OCM principles and engage OCM savvy resources as part of their effort. Project success is more than finishing the project on budget and on schedule. It also includes making sure your organization is ready for the change your project brings and embraces it to its fullest.

Can PMOs Add Value to External Customers?

Having worked for both internal Project Management Offices (PMOs) and external, customer facing PMOs, I have noticed some significant differences in the approaches and the value each of these PMOs brings to the table.  The argument is an extension of the IT department discussion, and whether it serves the organization internally or can it also be leveraged to serve external customers?

External customers must be the focus of the effort.  These are the customers that give the organization money to purchase the product or service the organization produces.  If the organization is not operating efficiently, PMOs can help by executing projects that improve the organization’s ability to execute, but in the end, it is the external customers acceptance of the organization’s output that determines the organization’s success.  And the benefits organizations derive from PMOs can also be extended to external customers.

When an organization delivers products or services to its customers, that activity can benefit from the discipline of a PMO.  The application of project management principles to customer facing activities inevitably increases the probability of success.  And successful delivery to customers is the name of the game.

So why is this not a universal thing?  Why are customer facing PMOs not more common?

For one, there is an expense associated with a professional project management function.  And that expense must be paid for by the customer.  This increases the cost of the product or service, challenging the competitiveness of the organization.  But the reality is that there is a higher probability of successful delivery with the application of professional project management to customer delivery activities.

How much does a failed customer delivery cost?

Large and sophisticated customers have PMOs of their own, and they can understand and appreciate the value of a professional project manager.  However, this message needs to be built into the value proposition and the sales process.  It cannot be a surprise or an “add on” cost after the sale.

On the delivery side, the PMO must build value by developing and adhering to a lean, efficient delivery methodology, one that can be easily communicated to the customer.  The sales force needs to build the delivery methodology into the sales narrative.  Customer facing PMOs cannot afford to spend cycles on processes or activities that do not add value to the customer delivery.

PMOs have a place in customer delivery and can be a differentiating factor that provides a competitive advantage, particularly in technology services and products.  However, they need to be lean, efficient and laser focused on achieving customer objectives with the minimum amount of effort while increasing the chances of a successful delivery.

The PMO as an Agent of Change

Project Management Offices (PMOs) are uniquely positioned to be agents of change within an organization.

Change is hard.  And change is everywhere. Change is one of the most difficult things businesses do.  Project Managers can plan for the change, they can execute the science of the change, but there can be a missing element for business change to be truly successful.  It is the “art” of change, and it has to do with people.

People need to accept the change.  And there are plenty of change methodologies and books and training about how to go about executing successful change.  However, within an organization, you need skilled people to implement change.  A Change Manager or a Change Management Organization is ideal.  A PMO can also be an agent of change.

Think about it.  A PMO is staffed with professional Project Managers.  These are people who get things done for a living.  If the PMO is not taking an active role in implementing change, change will fail.  But a PMO is not, by default, equipped to lead effective change initiatives.  I mean, the science of change, yes.  But not the art.  There are soft skills and leadership skills needed to sell change, to lead people through change, to help an organization embrace and accept change.  And while senior leadership is ultimately responsible, the PMO can help “where the rubber meets the road”.  The PMO is uniquely positioned on the front line of change, and can help implement a successful change initiative.  You just need to make it part of its charter.

The charter of a PMO defines what it does.  If playing an active role in change initiatives is part of the charter, the PMO will then endeavor to hire and train its Project Managers on the skills necessary to support change.  Most of those are already in the DNA of a good Project Manager.  But in most cases you have to build on that.  You have to provide the skills and training needed to be a successful change agent.  These soft skills can be taught and improved with training and practice.

Effective change management can be taught to all levels of an organization’s leadership.  But there is one group that is uniquely positioned to have the greatest impact.  And that group is the PMO.  All major initiatives should run through this group, and a member of this group should be assigned to lead them.  Making sure this group accepts its responsibility for the success of change, above and beyond the key performance indicators of their project, is a critical success factor.  Implementing the new system is not enough.  Adoption and acceptance of the change are also key.  The PMO needs to expand its scope to include these.  And PMO Project Managers are well qualified to lead change.

Improving PMO Performance

So, you have a Project Management Office (PMO), it is fully staffed, has a great set of tools, a well defined charter, and the support of the entire management team.  Great!  So how do you improve the performance of your PMO?

Modern PMOs cannot rest on their laurels.  It is a matter of “what have you done for me lately”?  There needs to be a commitment to continuous process improvement, key performance indicators, and ultimately customer satisfaction.

In this regard, PMOs are not dissimilar to many other business organizations.

Continuous Process Improvement – PMOs need to lead the charge.  This sounds like a cliché, and perhaps it is, but cannot be overlooked.  A lot of PMO complaints circle around how much harder and more complicated the process becomes when the PMO is engaged.  Well, there is a reason for these processes.  But business processes need to be constantly reevaluated and improved to run more smoothly.  Many times the responsibility of a dedicated Process Manager, the PMO needs to lead in this arena, as the PMO is both the consumer and victim of these processes.  Deliverables and outcomes needs to be prioritized, and a focus on the critical success factors is key.  The PMO has to be an active participant.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – the almost ubiquitous RAG (red, amber, green) “status lights” are just the beginning.  Which metrics are really important to your customer?  Budgets are always a good source of KPIs, budget spent to date, forecast, etc.  But be careful in not overdoing it.  Too many KPIs puts a lot of pressure on the project teams to report and it can take away from doing actual work.  Selecting a few KPIs, which may differ from project to project, is an important role of the PMO.  Selecting a KPI has a lot of downstream effects, like which systems will track the data, which processes produce it, etc.  And being flexible is important – new KPIs can surface midway through a project, and some of the ones you started with may lose value.  Don’t keep them for nostalgia’s sake.  Run a lean dashboard.

Customer Satisfaction – ultimately, this is the name of the game.  Who is your customer?  And are they satisfied?  Because regardless of what you think you accomplished, if your customer is not happy, you will not be happy.  Trust me.  In order for you to keep your finger on the pulse of the customer, you need open channels of communication.  You need to solicit continuous feedback.  And you need to respond to it.  Here is where all those communications tools and processes will come in handy.  Keeping your customer consistently informed is half the battle.  The other half is informing them of something they want to hear.  And accomplishing project goals generally tends to do that.  But do not underestimate the importance of continuous feedback and adjust your projects accordingly.

So a PMO that is tied at the hip with your Process Improvement Team (or person), a lean dashboard of KPIs, and open lines of communication with continuous feedback from your customers.  These are three things you will need to improve the performance of your PMO.

Critical Success Factors for a New PMO

In a previous post I discussed the need to “get back to basics” when it comes to Project Management, and one of those basics is having a Project Management Office (PMO). I’d like to discuss what I believe to be some of the critical success factors for a new PMO.

PMOs come is all shapes and sizes depending on their mission and the size and complexity of the organization they serve. However, there are some critical success factors they all share.

The mission of the PMO needs to be understood. Why does the PMO exist? What purpose does it serve? A PMO charter is a very useful tool to socialize and gain support for the PMO’s mission. A PMO without a clear mission will muddle its way through challenges, just like any other team without a clear mission. And obviously it can’t achieve a mission it doesn’t have. Don’t assume this is understood by everyone. Write it down, share it, and refer to it constantly.

The PMO needs tools to succeed. In this age of technology, there are many tools to communicate and to report. The PMO concept predates many of these tools, but they have become a critical success factor of modern PMOs. The PMO needs to communicate both project status and a methodology for all to follow. In the good old days, a binder would be the tool of choice, with paper templates, process flow diagrams, and sample deliverables. Technology allows us to digitize and share these much more effectively these days, but the concept of a “binder”, or of a “PMO library”, remains relevant today. Without it, the PMO cannot ensure consistency or onboard new Project Managers effectively. In addition to the PMO library, a “project record” is needed. Somewhere to keep track of project status and collect project artefacts.

The PMO needs staff. If all the PMO team members are managing projects 100% of the time, then the work of the PMO itself is undone. It can be part time of one person or it can be a staff of dozens. It depends on the size and complexity of the PMO, and it depends on its mission. But someone has to maintain the PMO library, someone has to define project record standards, and someone has to onboard new PMs. These are three of the most critical functions of a PMO. There are many others, but at its simplest, these alone could justify the investment.

So, in summary, the PMO needs a mission, a library, and staff. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the PMO adds value to the organization, additional needs will arise. But the value of a PMO cannot even begin to be realized without an initial investment, and these three things are as good a place to start as any. PMOs often grow with their organization and can become very complex and large. But they shouldn’t forget their beginnings and keep focus on these basics. A strong foundation will ensure the PMO can grow to serve its organization and provide value.

Project Management: Back to Basics

Project Management has made a lot of progress since the days the Department of Defense (of War?) built the weapons systems of WW2, or NASA sent a man to the moon. The need to apply knowledge, tools and techniques to project activities to reach the desired outcomes remains and our ability has improved. 

However, as we move into the 21st century, and a whole new generation enters the workforce, how do we pass on those lessons? As a microcosm of this problem, how do we enable a new Project Manager to become effective? With a focus on technology, agile development, and all manner of tool and technique, I think we may be missing a focus on the fundamentals.

I am a good project manager. But I have worked with better. Much better. And what makes a good project manager great? I think great project managers have made the fundamentals look so easy and second nature that we forget many of these are learned skills, and we have failed to pass them on to the new generation. A multi-million dollar project portfolio tool is not going to fix this. Actually, it is going to make it worse.

So what is the agenda for the meeting? Did we have action items coming out of the meeting? What are the major milestones? Dependencies? Budget? These things are the bread and butter of a project manager, but these are learned skills. We cannot assume a Project Manager has them. We have to teach and agree on standards of behavior.

I think that a severe lack of business leadership combined with a lack of understanding of this problem has led to a belief that Project Management is not a “real” job, but a “role” that can be tacked on to someone’s job description. And this attitude is dangerous as it ignores decades of proven work performed by Project Managers is a multitude of industries. At the other side of the spectrum, some Project Managers become so consumed with the minutiae of reports and plans they lose the forest from the trees.

So, let’s get back to some basics.

1. Project Management is a real job. Yes there are people called “Project Managers”, and their job is to manage projects. It seems silly to have to lay this down as a basic, but this is, after all, getting back to basics. You cannot add the “role” of Project Manager to someone else, either a Sales person or an Operations Manager, and expect them to do it. You need a dedicated, professional, trained Project Manager.

This could potentially involve changes to HR systems to create new job descriptions, a job career path (Project Coordinator to Project Manager to Senior Project Manager), changes to compensation, management training, etc. But the result is the identification and assignment of qualified individuals to fulfill this job. 

2. You need a methodology. There are plenty of methodologies and accepted methods of doing things, so no need to reinvent the wheel. But you do need to invent it once. What is your project lifecycle? What does a status report look like? How do you track your budget? You need to define and agree on the fundamentals. You need common tools, even if it just Microsoft Excel. So that every project is reported and tracked the same way. Trust me, this will work wonders when you move on from the basics to do portfolio management, or when you have to onboard a new Project Manager. 

3. You need a Project Management Office. Once you have 3 or 4 Project Managers, you will have enough critical mass for a PMO. It can be informal at first, and grow and evolve as your portfolio grows. But someone has to mind the candy store. Someone has to ensure consistency, support and coach the Project Managers, bring all their work together into some manner of Program management. Someone has to onboard new PMs and ensure the knowledge is shared and passed on. This concept has been tried successfully for decades. Trying to reinvent this concept at this stage of the game is pointless. Project Managers without a PMO are just that – a group of Project Managers. Their work disjointed, inconsistent, and lacking a single minded purpose and direction.

So, you need Project Managers, you need a methodology for them to follow, and you need some mechanism to ensure consistency, to support them and to onboard new Project Managers to your organization.

You should focus on your Project Managers and make sure they have the tools to succeed. Don’t assume they know every meeting needs an agenda, or that they know how to report status. You need to provide them guidance and support so that they can manage the fundamentals in a consistent and effective manner. Only then you can work your way up to loftier goals of portfolio management and program management. Without a strong foundation, anything you build will surely crumble. Don’t forget the basics.

Positive Leadership

I’m currently taking a leadership course at work, and one of the important aspects they teach is “positive leadership”. Being positive, having a positive attitude, and approaching others with a positive mindset in an important part of being a good leader.

This seems self-evident, but apparently not as evident as one would hope. There are still many folks who don’t subscribe to this philosophy. I recall management types from the 80’s, “management by intimidation”, and the like. But as the workforce makes a generational switch to millennials, positive leadership takes an even more important role.

As a leader, I cannot rely on “because I said so” to get folks to do what I need them to do. That really never worked, not for any length of time, but especially not now. People want to know why they do things, how they are contributing to something bigger. People need to be “engaged”, they need to buy into whatever it is you are selling. They need to follow you because they want to. The hierarchical relationships of the past do not hold the same influence they once did. And someone can pretend they are following you only so long. Eventually they will need to follow you even when you are not looking, and that is where the true believers and the sceptics can be found.

There are a lot of elements in the workplace that cannot be controlled, but of the few that can be, your attitude is one you can control. How you react to situations, to people, to challenges, defines you and affects those around you. You can choose to meet challenges with a smile or as a grouch. Guess which one will affect your colleagues more positively?

Maintaining a positive attitude during a challenge allows you to think more clearly, to project an image of confidence, and opens doors of possibilities to meet the challenge. It inspires people around you and creates and image of competence. Insurmountable challenges are rare. They typically spell the end of an organization. Most challenges can be overcome. But you have to maintain a positive attitude. Not only for yourself, but for those you lead.

This requires to maintain focus on your attitude. From the moment you wake up until you go to sleep, did you have a positive attitude? Did you smile? Did you say “thank you”? Did you offer praise? Did you give any feedback? Did you receive any? Getting angry and being grouchy only serves to make you less effective, less capable, and it is a complete turn off for those around you. Think about that when you face your next challenge. Take a deep breath, smile, and keep a positive attitude. This will get you a lot farther than the alternative.

Process with a Purpose

Process is the oil that runs the machine of technology delivery. But if that oil is not changed regularly, it gets old and turns into a sludge that could impair the machine.

Process has turned into a modern four letter word for some. In many cases that negative reputation has been earned. Process helps businesses achieve efficiency by defining a repeatable and consistent way of doing things. It helps onboard new employees and keep current ones focused and effective. It helps business achieve consistent results. But when process gets in the way of innovation and delivery, it fails to accomplish these lofty goals. I prefer to focus on “process with a purpose”. What purpose does the process serve? How flexible is it to allow for exceptions and individual initiative? How easy is it for others to learn, understand, and follow it? And, most importantly, what value does this process bring to your organization and your customers?

Us humans will, by our very own nature, follow the path of least resistance. A process will either enable efficient delivery or will hinder it. And we will either follow it or work around it. Every single process in an organization should be evaluated in this context. Processes that hinder efficiency need to be either improved or deleted. A process that hinders efficiency is a straight jacket that discourages creative problem solving. Sometimes reinventing a wheel is preferable than spinning one endlessly.

The process of evaluating and improving processes (aka “process improvement”) never ends. A process that was good yesterday may not be good today. You need to recognize the fluidity of modern business and build in enough agility into your process improvement effort to respond to this challenge. There are plenty of proven models and tools to help organizations assess and improve their processes.

I’m a big fan of Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI). I’m also a big fan of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) approach. But I prefer to use these as guides, or as a framework. The reality on the ground will dictate how many of these concepts are applicable and bring value to a particular situation. A focus on value will make a process improvement initiative a lot more successful.

I’m a firm believer in the crawl-walk-run approach. Before you start talking process improvement, you need process definition. Do you have a process library? Or a simple list of all your defined processes? Is it a 500 page manual nobody reads, or is it in an online repository where you can solicit feedback from users and collaborate on improvements with process owners? Working your way from a CMMI Level 1 to a Level 5 is quite a journey. But it requires flexibility and adaptability. It may require unique and unorthodox approaches to challenges to suit the particular needs of your organization and your customers.

As with the implementation of a PPM tool that I’ve written about before, you will need to leverage proven tools and methods of systems delivery and change management. That’s a given. But my advice is to never take your eye off the ball – “Does this process have a purpose?” “What value does it deliver?” If you don’t have good, solid answers to these two questions, move on to the next one. It’s better to have a small set of good processes that deliver value and have purpose than have a 500 page manual nobody reads.