Monday, 11 November 2013

Juggling Leadership (continued)

In the previous blog, I was asked some questions on leadership in projects.  There were some follow-up questions and here they are, with answers:

1. You write that it's important to "continuously improve". Do you have any good tips for how to do that? After all it's a bit of a mind-set shift for many PMs right? How can they start to do it and encourage their team to always be learning and thinking? Giving the team permission to make mistakes is part of the answer; but how do we strike that balance of experimenting and ensuring it has a purpose?

I think that you have to be continuously listening, reading and learning in general.  I've met a few PM's that seem to think that just doing things is enough.  HSE (Health and Safety Executive) say that competence = learning x experience, so I like to balance the two.  I've studied best practice and then gone out to try and deliver it, thereby embedding it in the mind and experience.

Projects are great, because you can apply the learning from this one to the next.  Keep building from one to the next, but remember that you need to have an input that helps you to improve.  You have to remember though, that projects are complex systems and unlike operating a chemistry set, you can't just do things the same each time and get the same results.  Get mentoring from inside and outside the organisation.  Ask questions and really take time to listen to the answer.

2. You write that "If I'm being briefed up and the Business Case isn't obvious, then I'll ask if they'll let me test the Business Case first". How do you do that? How do you test it? What is the secret to writing a good business case?

I think you have to look at the benefits and see that they're there.  If not, why are we doing it?  That's not to say that we can't do things if there aren't obvious benefits, but where there aren't enough funds to do everything, we have to be selective and do the things that give the best bang:buck ratio.  The secret to writing a good business case is to start with the benefits of what you're trying to achieve and work back from there.  Make sure that you have a User Requirement and also make sure that you're aligned to the organisation's goals.

It's worthwhile getting a copy of "Business Analysis" and reading the section on Business Cases, because that's a great primer on writing them.  I also like to remember who I'm writing the Business Case for.  It's not for you, it's for them, so write in a way that they want to read.

3. How do PMs avoid taking on a project which is just about "delivering technology"? What tips do you have for how they can start to "look at the change holistically"?

It's not about avoiding things, it's about ensuring that you have the ability to add the cultural change aspects that you need, in order to ensure that the benefits are delivered.

Keep your eye on what delivers the benefits and then make sure that you include modules in the project that ensure those benefits will be delivered.  No good installing a new computer system if it doesn't get used!!  I have people working right now to ensure that the features in our projects are actually facilitated into use through training and closely mentoring people who will be using the systems.

4. Do you have any tips for PMs who feel overwhelmed by it all like you initially did?

Be patient, and remember that it won't happen overnight.  Get some learning, speak to people in your management and get a good mentor.  Talk through problems and ask loads of questions.  Discuss things and be honest about what you do/don't understand.  Ask for help.  Only idiots don't ask for help when they need it.

5. In which ways do you go about building trust with your stakeholders?

I think you've got to talk to them and listen to what they're saying.  If you're honest about what you're trying to achieve, you have a good User Requirement and compelling benefits case, then people will come along with that.

6. You write about the PM Masters (MSc) that you did and the impact it had. What it your approach to projects that changed, was it new tools and techniques you learned, was it people skills or all of the above? What is important in order to make it a success? I suppose it was important that you could go back to work and directly try out the things you learned? What is the advantage of doing a master as opposed to PMP for instance?

I think the Masters route first teaches you how to think critically and then asks you questions designed to give your brain a good workout on some key topics like outsourcing, cultural change, user requirements, benefits, scheduling and planning and many more!!  You have to be able to back up everything you write, so you need to know what the key arguments are and both sides of it.  Thinking about both sides makes you understand why best practice is best practice.  I'm not sure that other qualifications do that.

I really recommend doing a masters (MSc), especially if you consider yourself a 'deep thinker'.

7. What's the best way of learning soft skills? Other than learning over the years through experienced, is there something more proactive PMs can do?

I think you've got the language right there, because some suggest that you can't learn soft skills and I really disagree with that.

Active listening is one of the best soft skills that one can learn.  If you don't listen properly, why would others listen to you?  Doing loads of requirements interviews helped me to learn that, but I'm always learning.  As an ex-technician, I tend towards giving answers and it was really difficult for me to put the 'answer mode' on hold so that I could fully understand the problem.

8. What do you mean by "I see people who've 'learnt the rules' on a daily basis and you can spot it a mile away."?  What is it that PMs do wrong? What's the best way to get "beyond the rules"?

By 'the rules' I meant that people sometimes try to shortcut the pain of learning.  Go out there, observe what others do badly or well and build your own skillset.  Don't try to manipulate people, just be honest with them.  There are no ninja mind tricks. 

9. Regarding "benefits management" - do you have a top tip on that? 

Yes, I would recommend that people read Gerald Bradley's book on Benefits Management - it's £70, but it's an excellent book!  Luckily I reviewed it for Gower and got it free.  Basically, my top tip is to make benefits maps which are aligned to the organisational strategic objectives.  If you can't see the benefits in what you're being asked to do, it's probably best to think about whether it's worth doing the project or not - and certainly worth thinking about which bits to do in either case.

Gerald talks regularly at Project Challenge Expo (UK) on this topic, so if you get chance to attend, it's certainly worth making the effort to get the techniques from the horse's mouth (so to speak).  Gerald contributed to the benefits work in MSP and other books, so it's worthwhile getting on top of these techniques.  Portfolio benefits management seems interesting and a great way to work out which projects to do and which to drop.

10. Do you have any particular ways in which you learn from the past? Do you have a certain way of running post project reviews or other great techniques that work for you?

Start each project with looking at lessons learned from other projects.  End each project with a lessons learned review.

Accept that you're going to get criticised by people, that's inevitable.

11. How do you communicate to the team on day one "which behaviours are good and bad from your perspective"?

Talk with them!  I generally know much of the project team and they know what I'm about, but in the case of new people you need to be specific about what you expect and how they fit into that.  Having regular meetings is worthwhile but you don't always have that luxury.

Juggling Leadership

I was recently asked to answer a few questions on leadership for a book. I thought that it would be good to share these and see if people had any comments. I don't profess to be a great leader, but I do like to think that I inspire others to perform well.
So, here are the questions I got asked and the associated answers:

Which attributes, thinking patterns and actions would you say distinguish an outstanding project manager, or project leader, from an average project manager?

I think that an outstanding project manager has a need to understand how people and projects work. They're not just thinking about the old 'time, cost, performance' thing, but also about how to continuously improve, how they can help their teams better and how they can deliver things better next time. I'm constantly reading, seeking new information to fill in the gaps and I really care that I'm doing things in the best way possible.

When I'm managing staff, if we're doing new things, I'll tell them that we're breaking new ground and we're probably not going to get things just right from the outset. We plan, and then we change that plan as we go, as circumstances change and we learn new things about how we work and how the project environment works. I expect that both me and the team will do things wrong, but they often need need that room to explore as they're doing things. As time goes on, we tighten things up and by the end of the project, we're running like a well oiled machine - but you have to go through that initial learning curve to get to the end point.

Where do project managers most often go wrong? Which mistakes do they make?

Personally, I don't really like delivering anything where there isn't an obvious Business Case. If I'm being briefed up and the Business Case isn't obvious, then I'll ask if they'll let me test the Business Case first. If there's nothing obvious and I'm not allowed to test the case, and they're not running a pilot then I'll flag up that perhaps they really need to have a think. Generally those type of projects go to someone who doesn't ask the questions, but that doesn't bother me too much. Only a very brave executive that would force me to deliver something that they're just doing on a whim, because I've spent years building up a good reputation as a safe pair of hands and I'm not going to risk that by agreeing to deliver an absolute pig.

Many projects just focus on technology delivery, and that seems to be a bad thing. If you're not delivering cultural or procedural change with a technology support, then you're on a road to disaster. I've got enough theoretical knowledge to back up what I'm saying and that tends to be respected.

What are the most severe consequences of these mistakes? Can you provide examples?

I've seen some projects that have been just about delivering technology and they either never achieve the claimed benefits, or end up getting culled because there is no user requirement. Some senior managers develop ideas that don't look at the change holistically - they're just looking at delivering technology. I'm aware of a fairly high value (nearly £100m) project that isn't really used properly and this is because there wasn't really a robust need for it in the first place, and they didn't change the organisation to suit it's introduction.

I've been quite lucky avoiding this kind of thing because I tend to ask some really searching questions and that often means that the main culprits will steer well away from me when they're looking for a PM. I'm not negative, we just have a really honest discussion and perhaps their plan has to be thought about some more.

Do you have any examples or stories you can share where you (or someone else) felt overwhelmed with a project. You didn’t have enough time to do all your tasks, you were fire-fighting, didn’t have anyone to delegate to and as a result you de-prioritised some of the important parts of the project. It may be that you didn’t have enough time to plan the project properly, understand the overall vision of the project, connect with and motivate people, or manage the stakeholders’ expectations? You were simply too busy with the urgent to focus on that which was really important.

In the early days, I felt overwhelmed by everything!! Now I'm a lot calmer because I know that I can do it. I have got into some productivity traps from time to time though. The main one is when I've been really busy and inevitably someone starts to make trouble and I've sometimes ended up making tons of phone calls to sort things out and/or calm them down. 

There's one guy I know that will just throw up a massive red flag and circulate it to everyone under the sun and sometimes not even me. Luckily I've learned to cope with this kind of thing over time and I realise that the managers expect that from him. I keep them all informed and I'll flag up anything risky myself - building trust, so they know that anything coming in from left field is probably just mischief. My phone is always on and I don't mind getting asked to verify things.

Can you remember any AHA moments or Eureka moments from your own career where you suddenly ‘got it’? You stepped up, shifted gear and started applying yourself as a leader of people, rather than a manager of events, tasks and processes? Please describe that moment and what it was that made you shift.

I don't think there was ever a true 'Eureka' moment, but there have been many small incremental changes over the years. I've done quite a bit of training: management, project management, business analysis and every one of those has added more tools to the box and made things easier. If I had to really put my finger on one thing that changed the playing field, it would be when I did my PM Masters (MSc).

There was so much in there and I was just spending hours reading things and soaking up the knowledge. That was a great time because I was learning about all kinds of things, but it wasn't done at an overwhelming pace because I did it part-time. I know that during that time, the managers at work really started to notice what I was doing and that there was a big change in how I was working. I paid for that myself and the savings had to take a hit, but I'm glad that I did it.

The best bit was getting a distinction and winning the Dissertation of the Year prize and at that point people really started noticing because they started realising that what I'd learned was really respected and in demand externally.

I now have bigger budgets, more staff and I'm certainly doing things much better than I was before.

Can you think of anyone else who you believe experienced such a shift?

I know that others doing those type of courses saw a big change, because when I was debating whether to do the course, I asked a question on the LinkedIn APM group. Loads of people said that doing an MSc had been really good for them and they'd learned loads. It's not for everyone, but if you're one of the 'deep thinkers' and you can commit a huge amount of time, then you'll do well and learn a lot that will set you up for the rest of your PM career.

In which ways do you feel that the recent economic crisis has impacted projects and the required capabilities and expectations which companies have of project managers? Have you seen any evidence that PMs have to pay more attention to business cases, expenditure and identifying innovative ideas for how projects can provide more value to the customer for less money?

I work in the Public Sector and I know that the budgets have been impacted severely. Many resource budgets that were previously available aren't there anymore. Business Cases have to be much better and I know that the ROI through benefits is looked at much more seriously than it used to be.

I've always said that austerity didn't really worry me because I made sure that my projects had sufficient benefits and a good user requirement. As other people have struggled, my business cases have still worked well because they were robust before and the new ones are equally robust. The difference between other Business Cases and mine is that I've got several years of writing good ones under my belt, even though I could have just dropped the quality a few years ago. I'm not gold-plating, just doing things right.

In which ways do you feel that the emphasis on hard skills in schools and the rational ways in which most westerners have been brought up is impacting project manager’s ability to lead people and deliver successful projects? Are we generally poor at leading people because we haven’t been taught how to inspire and motivate others and how to build great relationships?

I don't feel that schools are teaching the right things for business, or they weren't when I left school in 1988. There was a real emphasis on things like History and English literature, and it didn't rock anyone's world from what I can remember. Computing hadn't really taken off and computers couldn't really do very much. People didn't have the slightest idea what was going to happen over the next few years. The funny thing was that they could have taught more basic things in maths about running businesses and people probably could have seen the point of that. I've never had to use a 'simultaneous linear equation' since leaving school and I probably won't ever need to!

I think that there's a big barrier out there, because many people think that you can't learn soft skills and you've either got it or you haven't. It's a total myth - people change throughout their life.

What are your top tips for project mangers who want to step up, become a authentic and impactful leaders who add real value, build great teams and get results?

My advice is quite simple:

1) Be a servant leader

As a PM, you're either helping or you're in the way. If you're getting in the way of the team's productivity, or they're raising issues and you're not sorting them, then you're chaff and not really contributing to the overall picture.
One of my pet hates is managers who treat their staff like slaves. Staff hate managers like that, and will go to the n'th degree to make their life more difficult. I always remember the line of a song that keeps me focussed "and you just say that 'he just works for me', doing things that you can't do. So grease my palm with a hatful of currency, 'cos I don't belong to you" (Del Amitri, Hatful of Rain). With that sort of advice, how could I take the team for granted?

I think of myself as the oil that keeps their machine going, and sometimes that means that I end up doing things that I don't want to do, in order to make their life easier and the project run better. I clear the politics, barriers, lend a pair of hands where necessary, set equipment up, sort ordering or delivery problems out and generally try to make things work well. I wouldn't ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't be prepared to do myself. People tend to notice that kind of behaviour and react well to it.

2) Always be learning

When I left college, I thought 'well, that's it for learning'. How wrong I was! After another 20+ years, I've got a degree, masters, professional qualifications and read literally thousands of articles on management, project management, leadership and strategy. I can't see a point where that will change, because my mind is still like a sponge. Sure, it's a sponge that doesn't remember things first time some of the time, but it is still sponge-ish and I take great delight in reading all sort of materials that I can apply to real-life.

3) Always act with the best intention of the organisation in mind

I've seen so many managers who are seeking to feather their own nests. Bigger teams, bigger budgets, often to fuel big egos. I have a small team that works well. I have a modest budget, but it's carefully managed to run the projects that I have. I work hard to try and benefit the organisation, sharing new learning and helping to build the staff. I won't support anything that is 'selfish' and teams see that and understand what's going on. It's fairly simple advice really - if you're acting in the best interest of the firm, then I'm happy.

Do you have any other tips that can help project managers achieve any of the following; 

o become a better people manager

Act as you want others to act. Set an example that can be followed by observation.

Tell people when they're behaving how you want, don't just criticise the bad stuff. People want to do the right thing and get praise.
Do some management training. You may think you know it all if you've got experience, but only 25% of managers are trained and almost everyone thinks they could do a better job than their boss. Go figure.

o build better client relationships

Talk to them, find out what they need and want. Try and discover why they need it, understand their business and their teams. Really make an effort to do that, but don't just go through the motions. I see people who've 'learnt the rules' on a daily basis and you can spot it a mile away. I won't deal with those people unless I can't avoid it, and your customers will be the same.

o deliver business benefits that add sustained value to the client

Do benefits management. Get good User Requirements. Really take time to understand the customer and you'll get good requirements. Deliver those and you'll be on the right track.
Some of the best advice I ever had was this: I was working with a manager who used to quote the old Ford-ism "If I have asked the users what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse". This suggested that the customer didn't know what they wanted, and of course led to development of a whole range of 'innovative' stuff that the customer didn't want. I was discussing this with my friend Dr Penny Pullan who is a well respected Business Analyst and she said to me "In those situations, I always ask what delivering a faster horse would have given you". Penny didn't give me the answer to her question, but I'm convinced that 99/100 times, the answer would be 'happy customers'.

People often quote Apple as being successful, innovative but not consultative. Strange then, that there are often loads of 'product leaks' of all sorts of iterations of their products which then get ripped to shreds by the public. If that's not been carefully orchestrated, then I'd be extremely surprised.

o continuously improve, take risks and innovate

Always be learning! Keep up to date with the best practice, academic stuff and anything else you can get your hands on. Try stuff on a small 'pilot' scale and see if it works. If not, why wasn't it successful? Keep thinking, reviewing and asking questions.
Look at what you did and ask yourself and others if it was the right thing to do, or could you have done things better? Give the team permission to make mistakes, but keep an eye out for real howlers. If/when things go wrong, make sure it's positive and not that you've given them rope to hang themselves.

o avoid fire-fighting and instead focus on what is most important

When you've put out all (or most) of the fires, have a look at what you can do to prevent fires in the future. When you've got a spare moment, work on improving things so that those fires aren't happening in future. Learn to prioritise on an urgent/important basis and do, defer, delegate or drop as appropriate.
A lot of that is taught on management courses, so if you're rushed off your feet, but haven't been formally trained, then perhaps you need to go and get some more tools in the toolbox.

o become more visionary and inspirational

Develop a vision and be inspiring! Act like the best leaders do. Be the best that you can be, be clear about what your game is, and communicate that. As Reginald Harling said, "Get ahead, then give others a helping hand to catch up".

o become more assertive and impactful and learn to say no

I think that much of this is about communication. If you say "look, I can't do this without affecting other things that I'm working on. If you want me to do it, I'll make it happen, but I'll either need to delay or stop doing something that I'm currently doing, or I'll need x, y, and z". Give them a range of options and they've had a conditional yes, rather than a no. 9/10 times you'll get the job and more assets to achieve it. They have asked you to do something because they like how you do it, so 'No' was never really going to be a viable option anyway, but you do have to protect the quality of your output, or the reputation will suffer.

o be authentic and honest

Actually be authentic and honest. It's much easier to do that than to live an elaborate lie that will catch you out and then you'll lose respect. If you have to learn how to do this, all is lost!!

o get better at motivating and empowering a global team (virtual, multi-cultural, matrix team)

I always remember that the team's successes need to be attributed back to those individuals. Without the team support, I'd just be a 'team of one'. Make sure that the team know which behaviours are good and bad from your perspective and they'll start to do the good things because they want the praise. You need to set that out from day one, but it's OK to communicate it if you see anything that you don't like. Then give praise when they do the good things. Focus on the behaviour and not the person.
Cultural differences are always difficult. My partner is from Hong Kong and I was given this advice when over there "you're a polite and nice person, just act that way and you'll be fine". You might end up committing the odd cultural gaffe, but generally you'll be OK if you just try to be nice.

Is there anything else you haven’t already mentioned which you feel is an important capability or behaviour to project leaders?

Get some training and then follow it. Be nice to people. I think that I already said all that ;-)

If someone makes a mistake, try to view it as a learning experience and then move on. If you can't do that, then sack them, but don't keep them and then keep punishing.

What is the best way for project managers to grow and develop into leaders?

Get stuck in, make mistakes, admit the mistakes, move on and get better. Lead by example and give people all the support and chances that you had. Don't cover up your mistakes, because everyone will be aware of them.

How can organisations and line managers best support their project managers to step up and become leaders?

Support formal management training, whether it be line management of project management training.

Encourage people who are clearly trying to lead and don't keep slapping them down.
Never believe that your staff don't have anywhere else to go, because I've rarely met anyone that wouldn't move.
So, that's it from me - what do you think?