Tag Archives: Project Leadership

How to succeed as a PM in 2016

On-the-busProjects are done by people for people and through the medium of social media, people power is growing.  Successful project managers know this and use it to their advantage; they create a team culture focused on working with other stakeholders to create success.

Project managers know when they get this right because their project team will challenge, follow and support them, and each other, in order to get the job done. Not only that, but word spreads and other people inside the organisation will want to join the team or be associated with its success. When a PM achieves this, they know they have created something special and paradoxically are under less pressure, can get a good night’s sleep, and as a consequence are fully refreshed each day to keep building the success. This is good for the people and great for the organisation!!

Developing the skills and personal characteristics needed to develop and lead a committed team needs more then technical training. Experience, reflection, coaching and mentoring all help the project manager grow and develop (and it’s a process that never stops). Five signs that they are on the path to becoming a great team leader are:

  1. They’re well liked. Great leaders make people feel good about themselves; they speak to people in a way that they like to be spoken to, are clear about what needs to be achieved[1], and are also interested in their lives outside work and display a little vulnerability every now and again to demonstrate that they are human. They’ll always start the day with a ‘good morning’, the evening with a ‘good night’ and every question or interaction will be met with courtesy. When the team picks up on this the project area will be filled with good humour and great productivity.
  2. They put effort into building and maintaining teams. Designing great teams takes lots of thought and time – you need the right people ‘on the bus[2]’ and you need to get the wrong people ‘off the bus’. A great project manager doesn’t accept the people who are ‘free’ or ‘on the bench’ unless they’re the right people and they’ll negotiate intensely for the people that they really need, going to great lengths to recruit people into the vision that they have. Once the team is in place, they never stop leading it, building it, encouraging it, performance managing it and celebrating it.
  3. They involve everyone in planning. Or at least everyone that matters! The PM identifies the team members and other stakeholders that need to be involved; creates a productive, enjoyable environment, and leads the process. They want to ensure that they get the most out of the time and at the end have a plan that the team has built and believe in.
  4. They take the blame and share the credit. Great project managers are like umbrellas. When the criticism is pouring down they ensure that the team is protected from it. They then ensure that the message passed down is presented as an opportunity to improve not a problem to be fixed. Similarly, when the sun is out and the praise is beaming down, they ensure that the people who do the real work bask in it and are rewarded for it. When they talk about how successful a project has been, they talk about the strengths of the team and the qualities they have shown, never about themselves.
  5. They manage up well. Stakeholder engagement, particularly senior stakeholder engagement is the key to project success[3]. Great project mangers know they need senior executive support to help clear roadblocks and deliver resources and know how to tap into the organisation’s powerlines for the support they need.

Great project mangers are also good technical managers; they have an adequate understand the technology of the project and they know how the organisation’s management systems and methodologies work. But they also know they can delegate much of this aspect of their work to technologists and administrative experts within their team. And if the team is fully committed to achieving project success, these experts will probably do a better job than the project manager anyway.

Projects are done by people for people and the great project managers know how to lead and motivate[4] ‘their people’ to create a successful team that in turn will work with their stakeholders to create a successful project outcome.
[1] For more on delegation see:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1091_Delegation.pdf

[2] In the classic book Good to Great, Jim Collins says, “…to build a successful organization and team you must get the right people on the bus.”

[3] This is the focus of my book Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders, see http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Book_Sales.html#Adv_Up

[4] For more on leadership see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1014_Leadership.pdf

Technology and management

As many readers of this blog know, I am interested in history focused on understanding how the professional discipline of project management has evolved over the years. But digging into the history of project management inevitable involves the history of management and the evolution of technology.  And one immutable fact is that every new technology and every new idea creates winners and losers. The new ‘thing’ is implemented using project management processes and overall society benefits. The current collection of ‘history papers’ are freely available for downloading at: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/PM-History.html

One of the key papers is The Origins of modern PM, this paper takes a brief look (page 8 on) at the evolution of management theories .compared to the waves of innovation that drove the ‘industrial revolution’ and advancements in society through to the modern times.

Innovation2

Fighting advances in technology is pointless, as the Luddites discovered.  The origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. What is certain is the Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. What actually happened was the rise of the UK Midlands into an industrial powerhouse. There were winners, losers, and exploitation but overall the changes in society were to the general good.

What is not realised in the current debate around global warming and coal is that electricity produced in coal fires powers stations is a straightforward extension of steam power that came to dominance in the 1840s and is as inefficient as any other steam powered engines. What the electrical distribution system does is allow the energy derived from burning the coal to be transferred to remote locations ‘away from the fire’ for use as needed. It is convenient and electricity fuelled the next wave of innovation, but is also inefficient.

The typical thermal efficiency for utility-scale electrical generators is around 33% for coal fired plants, 66% of the energy in the coal is wasted Then an additional 30% to 40% of the power is then lost in the transmission from the power station to the consumers (mostly in local distribution, the main grid only loses between 5% and 8% of the power).  The net result only about 25% of the thermal value of the coal is available in your home or business!

This gross inefficiency is only affordable because the industry does not have to pay to clean up its pollution; most of the waste is simply discharged to the atmosphere. The raw material is not particularly safe either; around 5000 people per year are killed mining coal.

Much of the innovation driving the sustainability curve focuses on a changed paradigm. Generating energy close to where its needed using renewable energy sources. Solar hot water units generate hot water on your roof – no transmission losses. Solar voltaic cells do the same for electricity – managed properly its cost effective, for 6 months of the year we hardly need any power from the grid, winter is a different story……

Other innovations include various wind, and other generation processes that create power close to where its needed as well as renewable base load capabilities; all that is needed is the critical mass to make the technology cost effective (ie, cheap) and leadership for government to manage the changes and help the industries and people on the ‘losing’ side of the equation and plot a path into an exciting future, particularly for skilled project professionals.  As the Luddites discovered, fighting to defend a losing technology is a guaranteed way to ensure you lose.

Unfortunately, I’m still wondering when the Luddites in Canberra are going to realise the burning of coal to create pressurised steam is an invention of the 18th century, which largely replaced water power as the energy source of choice. And, that after 300 years the world is moving forward but Tony Abbot and a range of other backward looking ‘conservatives’ want to keep dragging us back into the past.

Australia needs leaders in Canberra and our State capitals, not Luddites – fighting to preserve 18th century power source in the 21st century is guaranteed to fail eventually. And what is going to be lost focusing on the past is the opportunities to gain from the emerging technologies, a lose-lose outcome.

A well planned and executed change paradigm exploits the strengths of existing capabilities, encourages the development of new innovations and manages the transition to the future whilst minimising the losses. This transition is good for project management but cannot happen without effective leadership.

The art of giving feedback

feedback (1)One of the key supervisory skills needed by every leader is the ability to give feedback to their team on individual performance. The reason is simple, if the team don’t know what you expect from them, you are unlikely to get the performance you need. If someone is doing the ‘right thing’ they need to know it’s ‘right’ and be encouraged to continue. If someone’s not doing what’s required they need to have their efforts redirected.

Feedback is different to motivation – a highly motivated worker producing the ‘wrong thing’ quickly and efficiently has the potential to do more damage than an unmotivated worker producing very little. The ideal is a highly motivated team, all doing the right thing and all knowing they are doing exactly what’s required. Effective feedback is one of the keys to achieving this nirvana.

The starting points are effective delegation, making sure each team member knows what they are expected to achieve and why; and a constructive team environment where people understand the ‘rules’ and are willing to help each other. Delegation is discussed in our White Paper: WP1091 The Art of Delegation. Aspects of team leadership are discussed in a range of posts at http://stakeholdermanagement.wordpress.com/?s=team.

Once your people are busy working, the opportunity to use feedback effectively cuts in. As a starting point all types of feedback need to be genuine. The purpose of giving feedback is to improve the behaviour of the other person and to bring out the best in your team and this won’t happen is the feedback is seen as disingenuous. There are essentially three types of feedback and all three have their place:

  • Positive reinforcement where you acknowledge good work.
  • Constructive feedback where you suggest improvement.
  • Negative feedback where you highlight unacceptable behaviour.

Negative feedback
Negative feedback should be rare, and generally used only where there is some form of unacceptable behaviour. The key with this type of feedback is focusing on the behaviour not the person – you are dealing with an unacceptable behaviour, not an unacceptable person. Geoffrey James suggests these 10 rules for giving negative feedback:

  1. Make negative feedback unusual. The ratio is five or more positive feedbacks to one negative; and this may mean you need to plan to ‘accidently find the person doing something right’.
  2. Don’t stockpile negative feedback. Feedback is best given real time, or immediately after the fact; there is no ‘best time’.
  3. Never use feedback to vent. It creates resentment and passive resistance.
  4. Don’t email negative feedback.
  5. Start with an honest compliment. (Discussed below)
  6. Uncover the root of the problem by asking open questions.
  7. Listen before you speak. (See more on active listening)
  8. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation. (See more on effective questions)
  9. Coach the behaviours you would like to see. (See more on coaching)
  10. Be willing to accept feedback, too.

The vast majority of your feedback should either be constructive feedback where you help someone improve or positive feedback where you reinforce desirable behaviours:

  • Positive feedback includes praise, reinforcement, and congratulatory comments to reinforce and encourage the current behaviour or performance to continue essentially unchanged.
  • Constructive feedback includes suggestions for improvement, explorations of new and better ways to do things, or indicating the ‘correct way’ to do something that was done in a less than optimal way.

Feedback

Positive feedback
This is by far the easiest feedback to give, helps develop moral and commitment and most people appreciate recognition for a ‘job well done’. The challenge is to make sure this type of feedback is distributed evenly and fairly across the team. If someone feels they are being ignored and ‘others are getting all of the praise’ the feedback can be counterproductive.

Constructive feedback
Done well, constructive feedback is even more valuable than positive reinforcement. A recent survey by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman has found that 57% of people preferred corrective feedback; compared to 43% who preferred praise/recognition. But how the feedback is delivered really matters 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance” . The challenge is to make sure your feedback contains information that is useful in a way that can be used.

In this respect, constructive feedback and coaching are very closely aligned. Coaching is discussed in more depth in my post Developing your team.

Giving Constructive / Negative Feedback
As already mentioned in the ‘negative feedback’ section the key to having your suggestion/criticism listened to is to start with an honest complement. One of the easiest is simply to say “Thank you for your hard work on this…” and then provide some feedback or even criticism immediately after. This approach is effective because:

  • It acknowledges the person’s hard work – Right or wrong, chances are good that the person worked hard on whatever it is that you are providing feedback for. It makes the person feel good at the start, because it tells them you noticed.
  • It doesn’t throw everything out of the window – It acknowledges that there is a good base to start from and with just a few tweaks and revisions it will be just fine.
  • It comes from a supportive angle – By verbalizing your position of appreciation and support, feedback will sit much better with someone who feels as if you have their interests in mind.
  • It is non-threatening – The person receiving the feedback immediately understands that you are not gunning for them, that your only motive is to help them and the deliverable to become better.

There are two caveats:

  1. If they didn’t work hard don’t use this opening, a different conversation is needed with a different complement to start the discussion (nice hairdo… / how are you feeling…. / I like your poster….). Honesty and integrity are key components of effective feedback and that starts from the very beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use ‘but’ or ‘however’ after the complement! “Thanks for all of your hard work, BUT…” simply means please ignore everything before the ‘but’. Use a construct similar to: “Thanks for all of your hard work, do you think we could make you job easier / quicker if ……”.
    It may old fashioned English grammar but (ie, ignore the beginning of this sentence), but is an exclusionary word similar to or:  “You can go to the cricket or the tennis” means pick one. And is an inclusive term. “You can go to the cricket and the tennis…” and in this context “Thanks for all of your hard work the outcomes are great and we can get even better…” (similar constructs exist in Spanish, and I suspect most other languages).

Why feedback is hard
One of the other interesting findings in the Zenger Folkman survey was people who don’t like receiving feedback don’t like giving feedback. And those who are open to feedback also find giving feedback easier. As a starting preposition, one of the easiest ways to gather ideas on how to improve your business is to have employees give feedback to managers, both in their own unit and in other units on options for improvement! But it is still not easy.

There are a number of reasons why feedback and certainly criticism are hard to administer and swallow at the same time:

  • People think you are attacking them personally.
  • People think you don’t have the right to offer feedback.
  • People think you think you are better than them.
  • People think everything they do is terrible.

The antidote is a strong team culture, showing you care and making sure you focus on the problem, not the person (unless the feedback is positive).

The ability to give corrective feedback constructively is one of the critical keys to leadership, an essential skill to boost your team’s performance that could set you apart.

Leading Knowledge Workers

Peter Drucker announced the passing of the ‘command and control’ style of business leadership in the 1950s. He and others recognised it is an act of futility to tell a person she MUST come up with a bright idea to solve a problem; but this does not stop a lot of ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade mangers from exacerbating failure by trying to control everything and blaming everyone else when the inevitable happens. Knowledge workers need motivating, guiding and inspiring by their leader so they feel empowered to deal with the issue or challenge.

This is not a new concept, the military developed the concept of auftragstaktik at the beginning of the 19th Century (see: Command or Control). Ever earlier, Laozi said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say ‘we did it ourselves’.” Laozi’s Tao Te Ching underpins Daoism, which in modern China is both a philosophical tradition and organized religion. He advocated humility in leadership and a restrained approach to statecraft. His emphasis on ‘naturalness’ translates into a way of life characterized by simplicity, calmness, and freedom from tyranny.

One way you can translate these concepts into the modern workplace is through the effective use of questions. Christine Comaford, an executive coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together advocates asking five ‘teaching questions’ for every one piece of advocacy or instruction.

If you continuously give detailed orders, you are teaching your team dependence. Whereas asking questions encourages learning and development, and frees up your time as your team takes on the new skills.

The type of discussion recommended by Comaford goes like this: ‘George’ comes to you and says, “Hey boss, how should I process this order?” And you say, “Well, what would you do? … Okay, what else? … Who should we loop in? … What could go right? … What could go wrong?”

She has found that if you ask that person the five questions on three separate occasions; by the end of the third inquiry session, they are going to ‘get it’ and start to forge a new pathway, and they’re going to go, “Wow, whenever I go and ask the boss for orders, he actually asks me what I would do”. ‘George’ will come to you for one or two more validation sessions – then he’s off and running. He owns his area of responsibility.

The most effective intrinsic motivators are autonomy, authority and achievement (see more on Motivation), and the skilful use of effective questions is one effective way to crate these factors in your team (see more on Effective Questions).

And the really good news is that by teaching your team confidence and competence with questions rather than dependence with orders, they are more likely to have the ideas and skills that will help you succeed.

So what’s your ratio of orders given to questions asked?

It is OK to ask for help

Far too many people think that asking for help is a sign of failure or weakness. In fact the opposite is true. If you don’t know something and waste your time trying to find out, or worse still make an expensive mistake, no-one benefits least of all you! Effective leaders, managers and team members know what they don’t know and proactively seek help to build their knowledge and capability.

Most people seem happy to offer help when someone asks for it, but are shy or embarrassed to ask for help themselves. Rather than asking, they try to work out the answer, even when it’s clear that it is not possible; or hide and not tell anyone they’re wrestling with something; or just hope it goes away. By asking for information or help, rather than wasting time and energy trying to solve the problem, you move forward and the energy that was being wasted wondering and struggling can be used for positive purposes.

This will make you a better leader and will also show those under you that it’s OK to ask for help. Demonstrating to your team that you ask for help when needed encourages them to do the same and frees up communication, energy and the flow of information in a positive way. It seems obvious, but it won’t happen without a push in the right direction.

Things you can do:

  1. First, stop talking to yourself and decide that you are going to talk to someone else.
  2. Decide who that will be.
  3. Craft the conversation. Write down not only what you are going to ask them, but how you hope they will respond. The art of asking effective questions is outlined in our White Paper: Active Listening & Effective Questions
  4. Schedule a meeting and promise you will ask them for help.
  5. Tell someone of your intentions; someone who will hold you to account for having the meeting and asking for help.

Then be pleasantly surprised; most people are honoured to be asked to assist friends and colleagues – by asking for help you are showing them you respect their knowledge and abilities.

Rewards to Motivate Performance

When you do a good job, you like to feel appreciated and as a leader, rewarding good performance is one of the key ways to keep your team motivated. However, there is a significant difference in the way many businesses try to use rewards to motivate people and what scientific studies suggest are effective motivators.

The ‘carrot and stick’ approach has been shown to be largely ineffective. This is hardly new; Henry Gantt was advocating rewards over punishment as the most effective motivator as early as 1912. What is interesting though, is that providing transactional bonuses as the reward has also been shown to be largely ineffective. Simply providing a reward of ‘1’ if a person achieved 1X, and ‘2’ if they achieve 2X has little effect on motivation, particularly if the reward is money. If you don’t believe this watch Dan Pink’s TED presentation on the surprising science of motivation at http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html or look up Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory, wages are a hygiene factor, not a motivator.

What modern research has shown is the type of rewards that are effective. We all have a deep need for autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives, mastery, the urge to get better at doing our work and to feel successful, and purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

If your leadership provides your team with these elements, you are likely to have satisfied and motivated people working together. Some of the key elements to integrate into your leadership include allowing team members the freedom to define their work within appropriate boundaries*, providing opportunities to develop new skills and linking their work to the objectives of the organisation and where possible benefits to society at large. Your job is to ‘join the dots’ and make the linkages: If we create a more efficient process, consumption will be reduced and there will be a benefit in the reduction of our organisation’s carbon footprint.

Rewards do not need to be large, but it helps if you can create a series of short, medium and long term aims to allow successes to be recognized regularly. Then provide rapid, frequent and clear feedback linked to graduated and scaled rewards for appropriate effort. The rewards themselves should reinforce the three elements above. Rewards that offer more autonomy or more control over a person’s work, or the opportunity to learn something new or polish an existing skill are far more likely to be effective than a transactional payment such as time off work. This is particularly true if the group as a whole can join in to celebrate the success.

So where can you start? One simple thing to try is the next time you need to direct a person to do a job, rather then telling them what to do and when it has to be finished, ask them how they can best achieve the objective of the task and how quickly do they think they can accomplish it. You may be surprised at the positive reaction.

* for more on bounded initiative see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/command-or-control

Confronting Soft Skills

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people holding leadership roles in the project management community who denigrate ‘soft’ skills. The latest attack on ‘soft’ skills is in a letter to the editor in the May edition of Project Magazine published by the APM, UK.

The Honorary Secretary of the APM Contracts and Procurement SIG, Gerry Orman states ‘soft skills are merely a form of manipulation’; and suggests including them in the knowledge framework for the project management profession will result in the dumbing down of our emerging profession. He also asserts the role of the project manager is to fulfil a contract, not deliver the project so apparently people leading the delivery of internal projects within organisations are not project managers!

Apart from the difficulty of defining projects in terms of one sourcing methodology, writing contracts, Orman seems to conveniently forget the thousands of contracts that end up in the courts each year because of the breakdown in relationships within the contract. Stakeholder management is a key skill for project managers, including identifying, prioritising the project’s stakeholders, and then developing effective communication within relationships that work (for more on this see WP1007 The Stakeholder Cycle). The success of the construction phase of Terminal 5 at Heathrow was largely due to BAA’s focus on the ‘soft’ skills needed to develop and sustain the integrated delivery teams that created the success. This was a revolution in procurement and supply chain management and led to this project being celebrated as the most successful construction project in the UK (for more on this see my presentation to the CIPS Australasia Strategic Procurement Forum in Auckland).

The same argument applies to most project management artefacts. The most perfectly developed schedule is totally useless if the information it contains is not communicated to the people who need to work to the plan; communication is a ‘soft’ skill. But communication on its own is not enough! The people receiving the communication need to understand the message and agree to use the schedule in the coordination of their work. This is unlikely to happen if the people have not been involved in the schedule development which requires more stakeholder engagement and communication, consensus building and a range of other ‘soft’ skills (see: Communication in organisations: making the schedule effective).

Putting it another way, developing an effective schedule that is useful because it is actually used to manage time on the project demands the project manager and/or project scheduler engage effectively with the people who will be responsible for implementing the schedule. This requires interpersonal, contextual and behavioural competencies.

Orman also states professional skills should be unique to the professions, examinable in a written exam and uses the medical profession as an example. Two members of our family recently completed a multi year journey to become qualified anaesthetists. Over the years there were many written examinations but there were also searching interviews and clinical assessments along the way and years of ‘apprenticeship’ under the direction of more senior professionals to ensure they were competent as well as knowledgeable. If medical professionals need more than book learning and written examinations why should project managers be any different?

Project success is achieved by persuading people in the project team to enthusiastically and collaboratively work together to achieve the contracted output. Developing a motivated team capable of achieving this requires a range of ‘soft’ skills including leadership, motivation, communication and conflict management to name a few. Organisations cannot do work; it is the people within the organisation that do the work and management is about directing and leading people!

Answering the question, what is more important, the ‘hard’ skills of scope management, scheduling and cost planning or the ‘soft’ skills of motivation, communication and leadership, is difficult. My feeling is the synergy of ‘hard’ skills powered by ‘soft’ skills will create a far more powerful engine for success than the sum of the two parts in isolation. Successful project managers need both capabilities either within their person or within their leadership team.

If we ignore stakeholders and the ‘soft’ side of our project management skill set we severely reduce our ability to meet our client’s requirements for on time on budget and on scope delivery. ‘Soft’ is not a synonym for easy!