Consensus is for suckers

Introduction

We have all heard on at least one occasion that we should strive for consensus in the decision-making process. This sounds simple enough, but is it something we should really aim for?  According to Wikipedia, “Consensus is the community resolution when opposing parties set aside their differences and agree on a statement that is agreeable to all, even if only barely.”  Doesn’t sounds quite as positive a goal now does it?

 

Why is consensus good?

Consensus is actually a good thing from an execution standpoint:

  • When you have a team that works together to reach a decision, you have a team that is more likely to stand behind the decision.
    • Since they have become a proponent of the decision, they will be more likely to voice their support to outsiders
    • They will work to ensure that the decision/goal is achieved. This is useful when you are incrementally improving a process or product as they will be the team that has influence over the outcome.

Why is consensus bad?

On the flip side of the execution piece, consensus is bad from an innovation standpoint:

  • Dynamics of groups often force consensus because dynamic/dominant characters tend to push everyone to their side and peer-pressure forces the stragglers to join the majority
    • This limits the number of inputs which can reduce the chance of new ideas
  • Innovation rarely comes from consensus because people are not likely to agree on something revolutionary and novel
    • In order to gain consensus you often have to give up on some of the more audacious aspects of the idea

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, you need to determine your goals of a project when deciding how hard to press for consensus. If you are working to improve existing processes/products then consensus can be a fine goal.

However, if you are trying to shake things up and change the world, then consensus will get in the way of your goals. Do you think Steve Jobs cared about consensus? No, he cared about making something amazing.

That’s not how we did it at my old job

Everyone has heard a colleague utter the phrase “That’s not how we did it at my old job.” Chances are you have said it yourself at one time or another. It is a common refrain and is sure to inspire mixed reactions from those who hear it.

  • Some people may think that the person is bringing relevant information to the table.
  • Others may think that the person is just trying to make themselves seem important.
  • Others may think “that will never work here”

The truth is that everyone leverages past knowledge/experience to conduct their current job. If this was not the case, managers would not care about professional experience. Hiring people who have performed similar jobs helps with the on-boarding process and execution of a job.

However, where we need to be careful is assuming what worked at one company will work at the current one. This is due to the fact that companies are very different from each other:

  • Goals – each company wants to maximize profits, but how they wish to achieve this varies. Some want to increase the amount of profit per project. Others want to increase the number of projects with each client. The goal of the company (and each project) may vary from company to company and applying preconceived notions can be problematic.
  • Internal processes – even if your previous company had the same goals as your current job, the processes that are used to get there may vary. Company formal (Policies, SOPs, and Work Instructions) and informal processes are likely to vary from company to company. Unless you take the time to learn the processes of your current company you are likely to run afoul of them.
  • Stakeholders – over time at your previous jobs you became familiar with your stakeholders and learned what they required of you. At a new job you need to take time to do the same thing. Each stakeholder (internal and external) needs/wants different things. Assuming they all want the same will lead to project and professional stumbles.

Using previous experiences will help you prepare for a new job, but when you join a firm you must be careful to take the time to understand how/why your current company operates. Focus on the goals, processes, and stakeholders of the new job. Taking the time to understand how your current job works will improve how you operate and may also help prevent any missteps.

Did technology kill the project management star?

I was driving the other day and the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles came on the radio. It is a classic song and it got me thinking about how technology impacts all occupations. Television and movie actors replaced radio actors. Bloggers are threatening newspaper reporters. Robots are replacing manufacturing/construction employees. Project managers are not safe from technology changing their discipline either.

The tune has changed

In the early years of the project management discipline, project managers were the central role of the project. They would be the one team members would go to with updates and the stakeholders would go to for answers. Technology is changing this.

-Prior to widespread adoption of project management computer programs, project managers would often be the source of information (time lines, cost, etc.) to stakeholders. Now, project stakeholders can often access a program or file to see the status of the project.

-Prior to these same programs, project managers would have to communicate with the project team members to get updates on tasks and issues in order to manage the project. With technology, the team can log onto a system and update their tasks without having to talk to the PM.

These two factors make many companies view project managers as little more than managers of the tool and thus trivialize the role. For this reason, project managers have to demonstrate the value they bring to the project.

Don’t be a backup singer

To overcome this viewpoint of the field of project management, project managers have to demonstrate the value they bring to the project. Project managers are not simply administrators of the project, rather they are leading/managing the project. This distinction needs to be emphasized and demonstrated to managers and companies.

-When it comes to providing project updates to stakeholders, don’t just show the metrics but rather relate the metrics and project to business drivers and outside influences. Knowing that a project is behind schedule, but is still going to finish prior to the true deadline is much more relevant than knowing the project is behind in terms of earned value.

-Team members are now becoming viewed as a more valuable commodity within the project (no longer simple cogs) and this is great for the projects. PMs need to make sure they work for and with the team to facilitate success. Focus on developing the team members within the course of the project and you will be delivering continued value to your firm/clients.

These are just two ways you can help to ensure that your stakeholders and management team continue to view you (and PMs in general) as a valuable commodity that should be respected.

Let your voice be heard

How are you making sure that the role/position of PM does not disappear in your industry or company? Let us know the steps you are following to improve the relevance of the job and reducing the trivialization by technology.

Put your team in a position to succeed

Every manager wants their team, and the project, to be successful, but this is often easier said than done. There are always obstacles to success and issues that arise during the course of the project. To help ease the pain caused by potholes in the road, you can help your team by putting them in a position to succeed.

I think the main components needed to put people in a position to succeed are:

  1. A clear vision
  2. A stable and mature framework
  3. Access to the proper tools

 

Provide a clear vision

Company Vision

  • The team needs to know why the company is in business. Is the company just trying to make money or is it trying to improve the world (or industry)?
  • The team needs to know where the company is going. What does the company look like 5 weeks, 5 months, 5 years from now?

Team vision

  • The team needs to know what they are working on.
  • The team needs to know why they are working towards a certain goal.

Individual vision

  • Team members need to know what type of tasks they are going to be asked to do on the project.
  • Team members need to know what they will learn during the project.
  • Team members need to know what the future has in store for them professionally.

 

Provide the proper framework

Organizational structure

  • The team needs to know how they fit into the puzzle.
    • What is the reporting structure?
    • Who do I go to with questions?
    • Who tells me what to work on?

Project management methodology

  • Methodology choice is unimportant! Choose a methodology and then follow it.
  • Educate the team on the methodology you are using for the project.

 

Provide the proper tools

Technical resources

  • Make sure the team has adequate technical resources:
    • Computers
    • Software
    • Materials
    • Team/meeting space
    • Snacks…all team members appreciate food

Human resources

  • Make sure you staff the team adequately
    • Enough resources
    • Qualified resources
    • Motivated resources
  • Make sure you develop the team via training and personal development initiatives


Following the above steps may not guarantee project success, but not following them certainly can doom a project. When the team knows that you are committed to them and the project, they are more likely to return that commitment in kind. Remember, you are all in this together, and you depend on them just as they depend on you. Do what you can to put your people in a position to succeed and you are more likely to succeed yourself.

It’s ok to ask for help

We have all witnessed the hot-shot project manager who jumps head-first into every project and never declines the request to lead a new engagement. Sometimes this PM manages to eke out success from every project, but this is the rare situation.

Far more often, the PM who keeps trying to juggle more and more projects is bound to fail and wind up with projects on the floor. This is because all of us, no matter how skilled, have a pre-defined capacity.

This capacity varies from person to person, but no one can manage unlimited project or priorities. We have the ability to start many projects and get the ball rolling, but once the project progresses the time and intellectual commitment dramatically increases.

As each project requires more and more personal resources, PMs try to find ways to compensate.
These include:

  • Delegating more and more work which they should be doing
  • Taking shortcuts in terms of documentation or communication
  • Pushing out deadlines

None of these solutions is ideal or, in many times, acceptable. PMs need to be able to focus adequate internal resources on every project they are managing.

Hopefully your company performs resource planning/leveling and never puts you in a position where you are over-allocated, but in talking with other PMS and reading other blogs I seem to get the distinct impression that many of you feel like you have too many projects.

So what is a PM to do? Increase communication!

With project stakeholders – Ensure that you keep all stakeholders informed of the status of your projects at all times. If things are running behind schedule let them know. If you are unable to meet a commitment let them know. If you need more time for a deliverable, ask for it. No stakeholder likes to hear about project issues, but they are much more upset if you hide the issues from them.

With your management – If you have conflicting priorities let them know. If you are unsure how to proceed let them know. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Saying you need help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, admitting that you are not invincible is one of the bravest things you can do because it shows that you understand your limitations.

These ideas are not silver bullets that will solve all project problems, but hopefully they can help you with some of your project issues. If you have other ways you handle situations when you feel you are losing control, please add a comment to other readers can benefit from your experience.

Starting is easy, finishing is hard

I was recently listening to a podcast when a quote really struck me as being central to the life of a project manager. The quote is by Jason Calacanis and reads “Starting is easy, finishing is hard.” He was referring to his experience starting and running several successful companies, but the quote applies equally well to project management.

Project managers are evaluated not when the dealer is shuffling, but rather when the project is over and all the cards have been played. This means that you must work your hardest throughout the entire life of the project. I have talked to some PMs and their passion is in creating the project schedule or gathering the stakeholders together in the beginning of the project. These tasks are important, but they ultimately do not decide the fate of the project.

The project outcome is determined by the consistent and continued effort of the PM and the project team. The overall execution is what matters during the project, not the ideas behind the project or the preliminary groundwork that is laid. As such, a project manager should dedicate most of their time to ensuring that the execution phase of the project is successful.

I know that many PMs state that the initiation phase is the bulk of the work and that it is then smooth sailing until the completion of the project. However, it is far too easy to get derailed if you do not dedicate adequate vigilance to monitoring the project. Do not overlook the details of the project or you will be reminded of them during the uncomfortable lessons learned meeting that folllows.

If you commit to working the plan during the entire project and dedicating energy and effort to control and monitoring, then you will have a greater chance of project and career success.

Top Features of MS Project 2010

I recently have installed MS Project 2010 on my computer and have begun to use it instead of the previous version of Project. It did take a little bit of time to get used to, but I think this version is definitely their best yet. I have listed the features I think are the best below and how they can help you be a better project manager.

Interface

  • Ribbon


    If you have MS Office 2007+ installed, you are used to the ribbon interface which replaces the menu bar. This interface is more efficient and lets you perform common tasks quicker. MS Project 2010 has incorporated the ribbon and I have found that they selected the right button/features to highlight. You can now create/update your schedule quicker without having to jump into sub-menus. And as we all know, the less time you can spend updating your schedule, the more time you can use to actually manage the project.

  • Data Entry/Manipulation Improvements
    Microsoft has also added numerous enhancements which allow you to focus on creating/editing the schedule and not worry about how to format the document/plan.
    • Auto-completion of field values allows you to select from previously entered information when filling out a field. This is especially useful when entering the resource for tasks.
    • Enhanced filtering of fields which allows you to analyze the data without having to export to Excel. 

    • Enhanced formatting options which include color/format as well as automatic wrapping of text within fields.
      turns into

Functions

  • Timeline – quick view of project overview
    • Reach your audience with new impact by quickly copying the timeline into an email, presentation, or any other document with formatting retained. 

  • Manual vs Automatic scheduling 

    • Allows you to decide whether you want project to automatically figure dates for tasks or if you want to manually decide/enter them
  • Team Planner 

    • Simply drag-and-drop to effectively plan tasks and optimize resources for your entire team and project.
      • Quickly identify unassigned or unscheduled tasks to proactively solve problems.
      • Simply hover over tasks to instantly view task-level details to plan with ease.
      • Be visually alerted to potential problems, choose to manually level resources as you work.
  • Save as PDF
    • Many PMs have been waiting a long time for the ability to save MS Project files as .pdf files. Well, the wait is finally over.

Compatibility

  • SharePoint 2010 Integration


    The ability to publish your project schedule to sync with a SharePoint Task List is important because it allows everyone on your team to have access to the schedule/task list without having to install MS Project on their computer.

    You can also have your team update their tasks online and then pull those updates back into your project file.

I am sure there are many other features to MS Project 2010 that you use on a regular basis. I would love to hear which features you think are most useful in your day-to-day life as a PM.

Putting people in a position to succeed

The main goal of any project manager is to put people in a position to succeed. This sounds simple enough, but it requires a great deal of energy/commitment to make it happen.

Project Team

Your project team relies on you to put them in a position to succeed. If you do not do your job, then they will not be able to perform their job at a satisfactory level. How can you put your team in a position to succeed?

  • Assemble the right team – having people play out of position will hurt the efforts of all involved. Do your team during project initiation to assemble a team that has the right skills/motivations. This will allow people to focus on the tasks that they are most likely to succeed on.
  • Ensure adequate training/ramp-up – similar to finding the right people, you need to make sure that people on the project are oriented/trained on any relevant project specifics. This will help them to hit the ground running.
  • Fight for adequate timelines – we all know that this is easier said than done, but fighting for adequate time will allow your team to create a solid product without having to cut corners or sacrifice quality. It will also help to maintain a work-life balance which makes the team happier and ultimately more productive.
  • Fight rampant scope creep – all projects have scope creep and we need to get used to this. As a project progresses, the true requirements often become clearer and allows us to build something that the stakeholders truly need. However, wildly changing requirements require that teams perform constant re-work and this can lead to quality suffering. Do your best to work with the team and stakeholders to allow some requirements modifications throughout the process while trying to maintain some semblance of baseline.
  • Be a buffer – your team needs to be focused on moving the project forward. As such, they will not have time to attend meeting after meeting or deal with every stakeholder inquiry/complaint. It is your job to manage communication with external stakeholders and shield your team from distractions.
  • Be a cheerleader – brag about your team whenever possible. Your team is working hard for you and in many organizations their line manager may not be aware of their contributions. Brag about their hard work and successes in both informal and formal ways. It will boost morale and will help your team succeed within the company.

Stakeholders

  • Define their expectations for the project – what does success look like? If you can work with the stakeholders to answer this simple question, then you can work with the team to achieve this goal. Many projects are begun without a clear understanding of the problem to be solved or the opportunity to be seized. Knowing the high-level picture allows you and the team to focus your energy on the points of highest ROI.
  • Define your expectations for them – Stakeholders are not passive observers on successful projects. As such, you need to let them know what you need of them. Let them know that they are responsible for being available for requirements clarification, product reviews, and to answer any questions you or the team may have.
  • Communicate often – Your stakeholders are often personally responsible/accountable for the project and they need to know how it is going. This is vitally important when they are queried on the project by their bosses or stakeholder. You need to make sure that your stakeholders are keenly aware of the project status. This involves both the good news and bad news. Provide them with regular status updates and be sure to alert them of any major events/issues. Do whatever it takes to make sure your stakeholders aren’t blindsided by any aspects of your project.

By following the above tips, you help your project be a success…and when your project is a success, you succeed!

These are just a few of the ways in which you can help your team succeed. How do you go about putting your team in a position to succeed?

Operations versus projects

I was having a debate with a friend of mine who is a project manager at a manufacturing plant.

I began the debate by declaring that his title is inappropriate and that he isn’t a project manager based on what he does every day.

He countered that had a project team and was required to submit weekly project status updates to his management team.

I asked what his status updates contained and his reply was that they highlight the output of the team and any issues the team encountered. Sounds like a project update to me, but when I pried deeper he revealed that the output was simply a count of the products the line produced that week.

I then calmly explained to him that projects are unique and designed to bring about change. They are not about:

  • Maintaining the status quo is not a project
  • Repeating the same thing over and over again is not a project

Projects are endeavors that by their nature are not repeatable, while you want your operational conduct to be very repeatable. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with conducting operations, but too often people in the world confuse operations and projects.

Let me know if you have ever ran across management who confuses the two a well.

Three ways to get your project back on schedule

As many of you can attest, projects can fall behind schedule. This is not a situation that is pleasant for any project manager. Thankfully, there are things that you can do to bring your project back from the brink. The three main ways to handle this problem are:

  1. Fast-tracking
  2. Reducing scope
  3. Crashing

Fast-tracking

We have discussed fast-tracking in more detail in a previous post “What is fast-tracking?“. Basically this trying to perform tasks that normally occur sequentially in a parallel manner. This can be successful, but it brings increased risk to your project.

Reducing Scope

Reducing scope is just that. In order to reduce the remaining time you need to complete the project, you can reduce the scope of what is required from the project. This requires buy-in from the project sponsor, but this is sometimes the best solution because it does not increase the risk of the project.

Crashing

Crashing is the practice of applying additional resources to a task to reduce its duration. This can be applied effectively when the tasks in question support divided effort. However, many tasks do not support this. As we have all heard, you can’t have a baby in one month by involving nine women! Also, throwing additional resources at the task often winds up being inefficient and costly. We will dive more into the process of crashing in a later post.

Basically, there are ways to reduce the time needed to complete your project but they all come with tradeoffs. Following sound project management processes will help you to keep the project on schedule and hopefully prevent you from having to try any of these strategies.