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Practise Servant Leadership as a Project Manager

It was my first few days on the job. I was checking for letter mail in the mailroom. (Yes, this was decades ago.) I froze and tried not to be noticed when the president walked in. In my previous company, you never approached or talked to the CEO. Well, I was about to find out how different my new organization was. “Hi Wan, how are you today?” greeted the president whom I have never met in person, let alone speak with. As a fresh hire in IT, not a manager or supervisor, I was so surprised that he knew me and my name. I must have mumbled a reply. We had a short friendly conversation. I don’t recall anything specific but I definitely remember the impact that encounter had on me decades later.

That simple greeting was, for me, an example of servant leadership in action. This busy president cared to learn the names of new hires so that he could greet them by name at the very first encounter. As a project manager, you can do the same. In this era of remote work-from-home teams, you can learn the names of everyone on your project team and sub-teams,  and schedule a brief get-to-know you online meeting.

Take it a step further and learn the names of every new hire who could potentially be on your project. Reach out to them on their first few days at work. Tell them that they can approach you with questions as they settle into the company. As a project manager, you have a broad horizontal view across the organization. New employees tend to work within their departmental silos. They are generally keen to learn about other departments and key projects. By reaching out and helping new hires early in their jobs, you build relational capital. You have a better chance of getting their support when your project rolls out changes.

Years later, when the president left his post, he again reached out over the phone to say thank you. Again, that’s something that I remember to this day. Not what he said, but that he bothered to call. As a project manager or a PMO, you too can exercise servant leadership by saying a personal thank you to everyone who contributed to making a project successful. Include this in your project plan from day one. Whether it’s a hand-written card with personal notes from project leaders or a video recorded thank you, appreciation goes a long way towards getting the commitment of the same people, already busy with operational work, when you call on them again to put in that little extra effort to achieve your next project goal.

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Prevent a Project Heart Attack with Regular Health Checks

Have you ever been on a project where everything seems to be going well until a month before the deadline when suddenly, without any warning signs, its headed for failure? Failure comes in many shapes and sizes. The deadline could be missed, quality may be subpar, or the budget exceeded. The project status flips from green to red without going through an amber warning state. You can prevent this by having regular project health checks, preferably performed independently by an auditor or external consultant.

Like their medical equivalent, project health checks serve to detect underlying conditions that may not be evident at the surface. If left undetected and unresolved, over time, small problems can grow malignant and prove critical at later stages. When should you conduct a thorough project medical exam? If you have never had a medical health check performed by your doctor, now is a good time to schedule one. Similarly, if you have never conducted a project health check, get one done as soon as possible. You want to uncover any problems while they are still small and easy to fix.

A month after the project starts is a good time for a first check. This is to ensure that the right processes, team dynamics, resources and governance are in place and functioning well. At this early stage, missing or weak foundational pieces such as stakeholder engagement, communications and change management can be rectified with less effort.

Once the basic project structure and processes are established and functioning well, half-way through the project schedule is a natural time for another check. Assuming a one-year project, a health check should be performed after six months. If the project spans multiple years, then health checks should be conducted at least once a year. These mid-point checks ensure progress towards the end goal is on track, ground-level risks and delays, if any, are known and any changes in the external environment are factored into the project plan. If needed, a strategic pivot can be made halfway through the project in order to meet new goals.

Towards the end of a project is not a good time for a health check. Any issues should have been identified at the half-way mark and actively managed in the second half. Often, it is too late to start to address problems if they only surface late in the timeline. At this stage, issues become emergencies and the project team needs to escalate, get resources, and use different tactics to double-down to reach their targets.

It is appropriate to perform a health check several months after project closure to determine whether the transfer to operations has been successful, the level of benefits sustainment, and what continuous improvement efforts are necessary to safeguard and boost return on investment (ROI). Adding regular health checks to your PMO toolkit is a step forward in organizational project maturity. If done for the entire portfolio, it helps with organizational capacity management, planning for staggered delivery dates, and management of stakeholder expectations.

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Project Doctor is brought to you by Wan How Consulting Inc. whose mission is to help project professionals advance their careers.

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How a project that delivers on time, on budget, and within scope can be a failure for the business

Pontiac Aztek. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The year is 2000. In a daring move, General Motors decides to revitalize its brand with a concept vehicle. Initial market response to the bold new look of the Pontiac Aztec was very positive. It was the “Most Appealing Entry Sport Utility Vehicle” according to JD Powers. Customers gave the Aztec among the highest satisfaction ratings in its class. By the iron triangle project measures of scope, time and cost, the Pontiac Aztec was a success. In business terms however, the Aztec didn’t even come close to breaking even. The return on investment was negative.

Traditional project measures that focus on output metrics are not enough. Projects need to evolve and start to monitor outcomes. Back in 2016, PMI published a thought leadership series on benefits realization. Returning to the analogy of the automotive industry, a project may be focused on designing and manufacturing a new car. But there is no benefit realized until a customer buys the car and drives it. For that to happen, there needs to be marketing, sales, financing, driver training, licensing, and insurance. This is nothing new for a mature industry but for emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things, project managers need to cast an eye beyond delivering new devices to seeing them adopted in the market.

Leading edge project offices have already incorporated benefits realization into its methodology and framework. If you are not part of such a PMO, here’s what you can do as a project manager. Read PMI’s articles on this subject. Start by holding a meeting to identify benefits during the initial phase of your project. Create a benefits register and assign a benefit owner to each item. At every milestone, report on benefits delivered. At the close of a project, when handing over to operations, hold a benefits sustainment meeting. List all actions that need to be taken to sustain benefits. Create metrics of key benefits. Every quarter, monitor and report the benefit metrics to the organization. This can be a great way to motivate employees who want to see that their work is making a difference.

Often projects are completed and initial benefits realized. Project resources are then diverted to new projects and focus shifts away from sustaining benefits. This does not maximize project investments in the long run. Measuring success based on whether the projects are completed on time, on budget and within scope is myopic. What’s critical is the harder work of measuring outcomes: did the project deliver intended business value and sustain long term benefits?

Benefits are not all about the bottom line. Leading organizations have mission statements that go beyond that. These could be about building communities, reducing carbon emissions, improving health and myriad ways to make the world a better place. Align your project outcomes to your organizational mission, find ways to measure it, then report on them regularly. As a side benefit, this could propel your project management career forward.

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Have you attended a consultative meeting where the decision has already been made?

UN Ukraine: Dnipro: Consultation on adaptation and localization of 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Last week, two friends were invited to a consultation but it turned out that the decision had already been made by the top person. The consultation was only for show. After having volunteered with this organization for over a decade, they will start to withdraw and eventually end their association. Similar “consultative” meetings occur in work settings and while employees may not leave, their hearts have walked out the door. Without fully engaged employees, the company’s performance and bottom line suffers. Human resources is then tasked with solving the problem and cultivate a more engaged workforce.

Where does project management fit in all this? In fact, project managers have a pivotal role to play. At the start of projects, they create the RACI framework. They should identify all stakeholders throughout the life of the project and insist that they be kept informed. If the project results in a lot of change, then stakeholders should be invited to self-select whether they want to be consulted. The understanding is that consultation doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be happy with the final decision—only that in the process of decision making, their voices are heard. The commitment of those to be consulted is that they participate in meetings.

Project sponsors and key decision makers may want fewer voices in meetings. They may think that stakeholders impacted later in the project may only need to be consulted closer to rollout. Here’s where project managers need to fall back on best practice and insist that all stakeholders be represented at the start. So long as they are part of the project kickoff, stakeholders can understand the why of the project and when it comes time to roll out changes in the future they are prepared to absorb the impacts.

 A case in point of failure in consultative process leading to project failure is the 2011 British Columbia Harmonized Sales Tax. Financially, the HST would have boosted BC’s economy. But British Columbians were unhappy by a lack of consultation in the process of implementing it. In a referendum, 55% voted to overturn the HST.

On the flip side, businesses need to be agile and respond quickly to changing market conditions. A consultative approach doesn’t work well in emergency situations such as COVID-19. Overall, for many organizations facing a variety of situations, a culture that supports a balanced approach to consultative decision-making and employee engagement is ideal. When achieved, it’s like cruising at maximum fuel efficiency.

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Why Agile Transformations Fail and How to Ensure Yours Succeed

A friend who’s an architect once joked, “My clients want a design that is good, fast, and affordable. I tell them to pick any two. If the design is good and fast, the price will be high. Something good and affordable will take more time. And if you want it fast and cheap, then it won’t be good.”

The same can be said of agile projects. The same three variables are at play: quality, delivery time and cost. Delivery time is fixed by the duration of the sprint. Cost or budget is also relatively fixed based on a stable team and technology. So the only wiggle room is scope. To get high quality deliverables within a fixed sprint, the scope must be right-sized to fit the sprint. Too large of a scope and quality suffers. This requires a shift in mindset but that’s not all.

There is the question of organizational culture and the speed of agile transformation. Agile is a strange animal. It thrives in different cultures dependent on its size and maturity. When it is young and little, think of agile being introduced to one team in IT, it thrives in a bottoms-up culture where the Agile Manifesto rules, teams are empowered by facilitative scrum masters, and decisions are made by the teams.

After some small, low-hanging fruit successes, agile grows from being a child to a teenager. All of IT may want to switch to agile. Other departments want to get a taste of agile success too. This is a difficult time. Agile teams may feel they have demonstrated how to create value for the organization and want to take the lead. Departmental managers, especially those new to agile, may not understand the new methodology but nevertheless, want its quick wins. Here’s where top-down decision-making needs to release some control to agile teams. If this doesn’t happen, agile will most likely fail to take root and may be abandoned by the organization.

Should agile survive the teenage years, then the next level of maturity is to scale it up to the entire organization where all departments embrace it. Another cultural shift is needed here. Scaled agile requires extreme discipline by all players. In other words, a top-down command-and-control culture that also understands agile methodology is what is needed. Bottoms-up decision-making is not going to cut it when scaling agile. Here’s where agile teams may need to give up some level of autonomy. This may be difficult to do if they were the champions who introduced agile to the organization in the first place.

The best case scenario would be for some of these early agile champions to have been promoted into senior leadership in tandem with the growth of agile in the organization. Like the growth of a child to a mature adult, there are key transition points for agile to scale into an organization. Knowing when and where these thresholds are and being appropriately agile when it comes to cultural changes is a key  factor in successful agile transformations. 

Another approach to agile transformation is to start with an agile mindset first. In a (post?)-pandemic VUCA world, the C-suite is adept at pivoting to survive and leverage new opportunities to thrive. They could start by switching from year long projects (annual sprint) to quarterly projects (3-month sprint). In so doing, they are automatically scoping down project deliverables into smaller chunks. Then they could ask for monthly deliverables. Monthly milestones translate to 1-month sprints. All this is achievable using traditional project management techniques. It also allows all departments to gradually adjust to shorter delivery cycles. It’s not just IT that needs to adjust, marketing, communications, operations, and support all need to be in lockstep.

Once an organization commits and all departments deliver on a regular monthly sprint, value is being delivered faster. There will then be less resistance to switching to a three-week sprint at this point. Here, traditional project management techniques must give way to agile methods. With the organization experiencing the benefits of shorter cycles, there will be less resistance to adopt agile enterprise-wide and eventually transition to a two-week sprint.

In conclusion, there are two approaches for agile transformation. The bottoms up approach, though more common, is also fraught with complexities of cultural transition. The top-down approach, starting with an agile mindset and traditional project management, experiencing the benefits of agile, then switching to agile methodology is, in my humble opinion, a surer path to success. A final ingredient to ensure success: a PMO that is comfortable and flexible with traditional and agile approaches can help navigate and support the organization through the various stages of a successful agile transformation.

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Sustain Benefits to Virtual Teams in Post-Covid-19 Offices

Having worked from home for weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be relishing the return to the office and in-person meetings. After all, you may have suffered from Zoom fatigue due to too many online meetings. However, the post-COVID-19 work environment is going to be different. Physical distancing will be the norm. In-person meetings, if held, will be in large rooms with fewer people and lots of space in between.

It is likely that some team members will continue to work from home while others work in the office, perhaps with rotating schedules i.e. not everyone will be in the office at the same time. When everyone was working from home, you adopted de facto best practice for virtual team meetings: everyone on their own computer: one person, one screen, one mic and one speaker.

How do you maintain that for a hybrid situation with some participants In a physically distanced office and other participants working from home? The solution: invest in a headset for each worker. The headset should have a built-in noise cancellation mic. This is to block out background noise such as coworkers talking nearby, loud machines or traffic from outside.

Don’t buy the cheapest headsets because they tend to be uncomfortable for long term use. You want something you don’t mind having over your ears for the entire day. I have been using my headset for more than 5 years now: it’s very comfortable, sounds good and has great noise cancellation capability.

Once you have this for every worker, you no longer need to book a large room and risk physically distanced meetings. The effect of having some people meet in person and others join online is a two-tier meeting. Those in the same room have higher communication bandwidth and those online suffer a lower bandwidth. The worst thing that can happen is the online participants feel left out and proceed to tune out of the meeting.

Years ago, at a PMI conference, a speaker said, “If you have one virtual participant in a meeting, you have a virtual team—and the best thing you can do for a virtual team is to have everyone be virtual i.e. one computer per person.” That levels the playing field, ensures that there is one conversation and everyone feels left in. As in any effective project meeting, I leave you with one decision and follow-up action: to sustain the benefits of online meeting best practice by purchasing a headset for every member of your team who doesn’t have one.

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How to keep your virtual project team engaged

As the project manager, you are the link to all stakeholders and project team members. If you used to work in the same physical office, with an open office layout and co-located teams, you benefited from high bandwidth communications. Not just you, but the entire team talked to each other, brainstormed and solved problems much more easily. You bump into each other at the coffee machine and over lunch. That’s why consultants fly from coast to coast–to work more closely with other team members and increase the speed of delivery. While remote collaboration tools help, timezone differences and perhaps the textual nature of some of these tools limit the communication bandwidth.

In these scenarios, what can the project manager do to help project team members feel engaged instead of isolated? Remember, they are not just isolated from you, they are also missing the connection with other team members. Also affected — but usually forgotten — are stakeholders who are not actively working on a project but who will be needed in the next phase or will be impacted during roll-out.

Here are a few tips on how to keep all stakeholders engaged:

  1. Send out a daily update on your project progress. This needs to be sent out broadly to all stakeholders, including those not actively working on the project but who will be affected in the next phase or upon rollout. Here’s where you can shine as a PM. Many managers think that other managers don’t want to hear about activities until they are actively involved. That’s not true. They want to know and be appropriately informed and involved right from the start. This is also the foundation of effective change management.
  2. Hold informal “Ask the PM” coffee sessions once a week. This is when you are online, having a sip of your favourite beverage, and anyone can drop in virtually and ask a question to find out what’s happening on the project. You may be surprised who shows up and tells you what is really going on (or not) in a project. Again, you can help isolated individuals connect the dots between various activities, decisions and plans. By helping them see the big picture, you are helping them better appreciate the part they play. This is highly motivating for workers who may feel like cogs-in-a-wheel.
  3. Have a project open house. This is where you invite everyone who is even remotely involved in or impacted by your project to an info sharing session. Get your project team members to present 5 minute lightning sessions. These should be short bursts of information. Again, if you don’t do all the talking but get key change agents to do the presenting, it engages the rank-and-file who may listen more and be better persuaded by a peer who is leading the change.

Doing these will help keep your project on the radar and avoid the situation where a stakeholder complains that they didn’t know or was not kept informed about the progress and what needs to happen next.

To learn more, join the webinar on May 26, 2020 @12pm Pacific: How to Engage Your Virtual Teams

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Tips for Host-less Zoom Meetings

An updated version of this post, with more Zoom meeting tips, is available at http://projectmanager.coach/zoom-tips-for-project-managers/

During this COVID-19 season, many meetings are being held online via Zoom. It’s not just work meetings, many social gatherings are being hosted online too. Free Zoom accounts have a limit of 40 minutes for three or more participants. For longer meetings of larger groups, at least one member of your group needs a paid account. Let’s call this paying member your group’s Zoom Admin.

With just one account, your group can have any number of participants with no time limit. Any member of your group can also request the Zoom Admin to setup a meeting for a subset of the group or another group of friends. The Zoom Admin need not attend for the meeting to go on.

Here’s how to do this. The Zoom Admin needs to change the meeting settings to:

  • Enable join before host so the meeting can proceed without the Zoom Admin
  • Disable mute participants upon entry – otherwise participants cannot start the meeting unless the Zoom Admin unmutes them. If the Zoom Admin doesn’t join, then the meeting can’t start.
  • Disable waiting room so that meeting participants don’t wait forever if the Zoom Admin doesn’t join.

Here’s the screenshot for how to setup a meeting for any group of friends or friends-of-friends where the Zoom Admin is not attending.

Another important feature to enable for host-less Zoom meetings is screen sharing. By default, only the host can screen share. If the host is not going to attend the meeting, then you need to allow all participants to share their screens. You change this from your Personal Settings and it applies to all meetings.

  • Set who can share to All Participants
  • Set who can start sharing when someone else is sharing to All Participants
  • Important: do Not disable desktop/screen share for users i.e. make sure that this option is greyed out.

Since these settings apply to all your meetings, remember to change them back to your preferred settings once you return from vacation and can continue to host the meetings you scheduled.

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