Project Management Skills Should be Required for Everyone!

Project Management Lifecycle

An organization I work with recently switched to a new email server. The plan was that at the flick of a switch everything would migrate to the new server and in less than five minutes everyone would be up and running. A week later the mess is still being cleaned up.

Very few IT projects that I’ve participated in have been implemented without some unexpected glitch. In fact, I think the mantra of many in IT is “expect the unexpected.” The point being, as optimistic as one might be, it’s a good idea to think about what could go wrong and plan accordingly. And just as importantly, communicate accordingly.

In the scenario I described above, even if the switch would have worked and the system was up within minutes, there was additional set-up that every user needed to complete to activate the system. No one anticipated this. No email message with self-service instructions was provided, so the IT staff has had to work individually with everyone in the organization to get them set up.

Unfortunately, situations like this happen all the time.  We get focused on the core task and forget what is happening up and down stream. As a college professor I believe a critical skill that every college graduate must learn is basic project management. The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) focuses on five key processes:

  1. Initiating
  2. Planning
  3. Executing
  4. Monitoring and Controlling
  5. Closing

There are also nine areas of knowledge that are central to managing any type of project:

PMBOK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not everyone who leads a project will need to be concerned with every aspect of these nine areas of knowledge. However, a basic education in project management will promote the acquisition of a project management mindset that identifies areas of risk, possible derailments, and contingency plans. When employees are taught to anticipate what might happen, whether in customer interactions or technology implementations, communication can help control the process and curtail the need for inefficient crisis management if things go wrong.

The key to managing any project is asking the right questions before the project moves an inch. Here are a few that apply to almost all projects, and should be asked by everyone whether they are managing the project or not.

  1. What, exactly, is changing? What will be different when we’re done?
  2. What might go wrong? What will happen if things go awry? What makes for a good project implementation?
  3. What is my role? Do I need to communicate information down the line?
  4. Do I have critical information or concerns that I need to share with someone in charge?
  5. What assumptions am I making about the project?
  6. Are there others who may be affected by the project who don’t know as much as I do? What might I need to share with them?
  7. What could be done to make the project as smooth as possible?
  8. Would it help to create a FAQ document? A job aid or quick reference guide? What would help me do my job easier – that’s usually important to everyone.
  9. What has been communicated about the project? Is it sufficient? If someone walked in off the street could they make sense of what was happening?
  10. What are my co-workers most likely to ask questions (or grumble) about?

Failure to effectively manage projects results in inefficiency, including re-work or additional work, and causes hours of grumbling among staff. A little pre-planning and an extra communication effort can make a huge difference in the execution of a project. Going back to my original example, if the questions above were given any consideration, a whole week of stress, confusion, and reduced productivity could have been avoided.

The One-Page Project Manager: Communicate and Manage Any Project With a Single Sheet of Paper

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Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management (2nd Edition)
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Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

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Twenty Minutes a Day

My last blog post was months ago. I have started to write a couple of times, but could never finish and publish. I was buried beneath my to-do list, and couldn’t seem to get caught up.

Then a client asked me to deliver training to help their executive team figure out how to accomplish the organization’s strategic goals when everyone seemed to be struggling to keep up with the daily grind.

As I began to put the lesson together, I realized I had to figure this issue out for myself!

I just graded papers for my Managing Organizational Change class, where more than half the students wrote about procrastination and time management for a project on personal change. I empathize with their struggle to find balance and set priorities so that assignments get done on time. Students often think their situation is unique, trying to have a social life, make money, and stay on top of their school work.

Instead of offering a reprieve, adulthood only complicates things. Juggling family, work, volunteer work, and hopefully some diversions from the monotony of daily routine keep us from making time for all of our good intentions, our strategic goals, those “some day” projects we never seem to get to.

My to-do list is not likely to shrink much in the near future, although I’m working that angle to see where I can cut out meetings, networking that does not add value, and commitments that I should probably back out of or defer. I am becoming much more diligent in reviewing my calendar to eliminate things that keep me from what is essential or most important.

A regular calendar audit is useful to make sure you don’t allow things to creep onto your schedule without a good reason.

But what I have discovered recently is that I can make progress on my strategic goals, be they personal or professional, with a commitment of only 20 minutes a day. That’s about how long it takes to write a short blog message, read (or write) part of a chapter in a book, research a new topic, or set up a tracking system.

For those things that will take longer, I’m learning to break the tasks down into twenty-minute increments and scheduling the time when I’m at my peak focus and energy, and least likely to get distracted by my to-do list.

Even if I don’t get as far as I want as fast as I want, I will still be able to see progress. Those strategic dreams will begin to take shape. Little by little I will see things take shape and can celebrate the small victories as long-term goals are no longer pipe dreams.

Twenty minutes a day, every day, seems pretty doable!

Illuminate and Eliminate Invisible Performance Barriers

Leaders spend a great deal of time creating strategies, laying out short– and long-term  plans to increase market share, improve net income, or simply retain customers only to have those best-laid plans run into unseen barriers. The types of barriers range from unforeseen expenses to a lack of motivation from employees.

To uncover these hindrances to performance and deal with them effectively takes an ability to analyze factors within the organizational system. This is no easy task in the rapid-fire corporate environment most of us live in.  The barriers remain hidden to us because we can’t slow down enough to reflect and consider what is getting in the way of the plans we were sure would work.

Exposing performance gaps requires a systematic approach that looks beyond the surface assumptions, such as training, pay and incentives. It is a common solution to retrain or reprimand employees who are not meeting performance expectations, but we fail to get to the real issue, which could be anything from an ineffective software program, a poor system of accountability, or a workflow that creates a bottleneck outside the control of the employee you’ve determined is a poor performer.

The fact is, identifying gaps in human performance is not simple. It takes skill and a reliable process to evaluate the multiple factors that contribute to performance gaps.  A useful model is the Human Performance Technology model promoted by the International Society for Performance Improvement, which espouses ten competencies that, properly applied, identify the unseen barriers and provide a framework for performance improvement.

 Illuminating and eliminating invisible performance barriers takes practice, but the benefits of following the HPI model leads to net gains, increased engagement/satisfaction, and an increasing ability to see the unseen as the organization builds a culture of evaluating the system and making smart, strategic decisions.

*To find out more about Human Performance Improvement & Technology, visit www.ispi.org

Visit www.cornerstoneglobaltps.com for more information about HPT-based consulting.

Employees key to bouncing back after the recession

Few companies have come through the past 2-3 years unscathed by the recession. Leaders should consider the impact the recession has had on those who have survived in your organization. How are your employees doing at riding the wave of the economic crisis?

  • Are they disheartened, barely hanging on?
  • Are they committed to your organization and doing everything they can to maximize revenue?
  • Are they coming to you with innovative solutions to bring new customers?
  • Are they maintaining your reputation or just waiting for an opportunity to jump ship?
  • Have you been so focused on surviving the recession to pay much attention to the needs of your employees?

Most companies cut training and development when times get hard.  At the same time incentives and motivational processes take a hit, leading to a discouraging scenario for employees.  If layoffs or deferred hiring also are used to cut expenses during a downturn, the surviving employees are asked to do more with less. The accumulative effect is a disengaged workforce that puts in minimal effort, feeling that the organization doesn’t do anything to earn their commitment.

Not all of this is fair, of course, since employers have to do something to ride out the storm. It’s important for business leaders to understand the value of learning during challenging economic times. The old adage, “You have to spend money to make money” comes into play here.  According to a 2009 study by The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and i4cp (Organizational Learning in Tough Economic Times), 38% of companies plan to place more emphasis on learning during the economic crisis. The remaining 60% are either maintaining pre-recession levels or cutting back, some drastically.

The reality is that there’s never been a better time to focus on talent development within your organization.  It is your employees that will pull your company through and help your regain traction as the economy begins to recover.  Managers and business owners must become astute at managing performance, growing talent, and leveraging strengths to maximize human capital.

Because people are the cornerstone to any business – the foundation upon which the organization either stands strong or falters, the wisest thing for companies to do is become experts in managing human performance.  A strong human capital strategy includes an assessment of desired verses actual performance, analysis of strengths & competencies and selection practices to ensure the right people are in the right job, and a commitment to developing people that doesn’t waver despite market and economic fluctuations.

The good news is that human performance management doesn’t have to be expensive! And the return on investment pays off quickly. The key is having a plan and sticking with it. Once processes are in place they can be maintained through feast or famine.  Keep in mind the toll that the economic crisis has on your employees and consider budget-conscious solutions that will keep them engaged. Your employees want to succeed, but need to know they can trust management to support them.

As businesses make difficult decisions about how to pull through the current economic downturn, they must think beyond the knee-jerk reaction to slash costs to the bone. In ASTD’s Economic Survival Guide, the message is “Survival of the learning function in a down economy is all about leveraging existing best practices, eliminating redundancies, and creating programs or situations where employees can learn from each other.” You may want to invest in the services of an organization development consultant to initiate your human performance analysis, which will ensure you’re focusing on the most valuable efforts that lead to sustainable performance and position your company for success as the economy bounces back.

Big Problems, Small Solutions

Why do we always think a big problem requires big solutions? With this mindset we can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and miss the small solution that can make a big difference. Brothers Dan and Chip Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, talk about this phenomenon. Their observation is that, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over decades.” Most of our problems in organizations do not require decades to improve, but they do take a strategic approach. We have to resist the temptation to put band-aids on complex issues and take a systems view to explore the multiple sources contributing to the problem. In a recent job I was tasked with solving a performance problem with call center agents. Month after month a group of agents fell below quality expectations. I brought in the experts – Quality Analysts, Team Managers, and Trainers – and asked each of them what they thought the problem was and how to solve it. All of them had a diferent perspective and all of them was right. If I had only listened to one group and not the other, small solutions would have been missed. The solution was not a large-scale training program, but a multi-faceted one that included targeted coaching, group activities, and repositioning the agents nearer the help they needed to succeed. It was a big problem with a lot of attention from senior management, but the solutions were small and organic.