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Sacking a non-performing team member – this, too, can be a sign of leadership

I have recently worked on a project which consisted of several sub-projects.  Most of them were running smoothly, i.e., milestones were met, deliverables were generally of good quality.  Unfortunately, there was one project which continually was running late.  The project objectives were clearly defined, there was a work breakdown structure the sub-project manager helped create and bought into.  In short, the setup looked promising.  Alas, reality looked different.  Deliverables were incomplete, late and of poor quality.  Colleagues and consultants helped the sub-project manager in his work.  Still, performance was dismal.  Adding to complexity the sub-project manager became sick for 3 weeks right after the Christmas holiday.  The designated stand-in attended weekly project meetings.  But he explained that he was not able to fill in for the sick project manager because this would have meant to neglect his other work.  What a stand-in!  What good does it do if you have someone standing in for you in case become sick and this person cannot replace you for various reasons.  Oh well, buttom line was that work in this sub-project basically laid still for 4 weeks.   Once the sub-project manager returned the project manager and consultants met with him to lay out a roadmap to recover the late sub-project.  Again, the sub-project manager actively participated in this exercise, committed to the newly planned deliverables and milestones.  Did anything change?  Unfortunately not.

What went wrong?  Colleagues and consultants pointed out to the responsible project managers that there were evident signs that the sub-project manager was simply not up to his task.  He had lots of practical experiences in his field of expertise but it was the very first time that he was asked to manage a project.  The organizational supervisors believed that given his experience and academic training he had to be qualified to manage and lead a project.  Sounds familiar?
It makes me wonder what drives this faulty conclusion.  Project management can be learned, there is no doubt.  But it also takes a certain mindset and attitude.  A strong project manager is solution and results oriented, has the drive to finish things. And he knows his limits, knows when to ask for help, when to raise an issue, how to identify risks.
In the case described above this was not the case.
So what could have been done?  If all fails, replace the sub-project manager.  Leadership involves making decisions.  Even when they are not pleasant.  In case of a non-performing team member who is endangering the success of a complete project the project leader has to react.  In the situation above this would have meant to “sack” the sub-project manager, replace him by someone else or distribute the workload to other team members capable of managing it.  If the project leader cannot make this decision because, for example, he is endowed with the organizational authority to do so, the issue needs to be escalated to the organizational supervisor.  If the supervisor does not react either, the issue has to be escalated to the project sponsor who has to make the ultimate decision.  At that point the ownership of the issue and its resulting risks is being transferred to the project sponsor.

Not taking any action, downplaying an obvious problem, not actively mitigating a risk is not leadership.  It is true that some issues may be resolved by inaction, letting the dynamics take care of it.  If done so on purpose and for good reasons, fine.  Principally, I think this is the wrong approach.  One of the pillars of effective leadership is ensuring delivery and results.  If it requires to sack a non-performing team member, so be it.  This reminds of how a mentor of mine, Neil Whitten, desribes a good project manager, stating that “a good project manager is a benevolent dictator”.  Think about it.  I believe that is a lot of truth in this.

Posted in: Leadership, Project Management

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All work is project work

Well, not all work but most. I have recently come across an article which states this. The article can be found at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/24/wowproj.html is an excellent read.

It is entitled “The Wow Proejct”, yet goes way beyond project work. “Wow Projects”, the author, Tom Peters, writes are “projects that add value, projects that matter, projects that make a difference, projects that leave a legacy.”

Interestingly most of the projects I worked on or managed met these requirements. It has not been the nature of the project. It has been the attitude of the whole team and its desire to create something special. All of my Wow Projects started with a clear vision. Clear enough to become emotional about it. We could see, smell and feel the expected end results. This was a strong driver in our day-to-day activities. Other attributes of these projects were that collaboration was working. Roles and responsibilities were defined, team members’ expectations articulated and accounted for, all were reviewed regularly, adapting them where necessary. Creating and nurturing an innovative learning environment was another success factor. An atmosphere where feedback was sincere, honest and constructive. It was about helping and learning from each other. Last but not least, the Wow Projects were about delivering results. Not just the final deliverable. Instead, we set weekly goals to work on and deliver. This way we always had a good sense of accomplishments.

When you read the above mentioned article you will find a lot of parallels. You can call it Wow Projects or Effective Project Management or whatever you like. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it works.

If you haven’t done so, go for it. It is worth, rewarding and fun.

Posted in: Leadership, Project Management

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Interview on effective leadership and creating a Team Norming workshop

I am proud and happy to announce that an interview I gave last month in Denver for the Project Leadership Podcast (http://www.projectleadershippodcast.com/ -> go to Episode 2) has just gone live.  In this featured Interview I talk about leadership and creating a “Team norming” workshop.

The Project Leadership podcast is designed to provide interested parties in the most up-to-date Project Management tools, techniques and ideas in the industry. The podcast strives to deliver new and cutting edge information on the Project Management industry so that listeners can take the best-of-breed information and use it directly in their work and home lives. Through interviews with top industry leaders and visionaries in the Project Management field the podcast will continue to challenge and inform the Project Management community.

Feedback and suggestions welcome.  Also, please let me know if you are interested in contributing to this Podcast and I will connect you with the founder and lead of the Podcast, Camper Bull.

Posted in: Leadership, PMI Congress Denver 10'08, Project Management

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Project vs. Product Management

There are important differences between project and product management as well as commonalities.

The project manager:
The project manager is responsible for managing the assigned project in time and in budget.  Whether or not the project manager is eventually accountable for the deliverables depends on the project organization and governance the project is set up in.
The project cycle usually ends with acceptance and sign off of the deliverables as well as the formal project closure sign-off.

The product manager:
First of all a product manager is accountable for the respective product for the comlete product life cycle.  This cycle usually outlasts a typical project life cycle.  For example, a project life cycle may end with the delivery of a finished product whereas the product life cylce lasts until the “exit” of the respective product from the market place.

Project vs. product manager
In case of a product development project, both the project and product manager need to work together.  Whereas the project manager is primarily responsible for the implementation of the product, the product manager is accountable and responsible for defining the product requirements, development, marketing and possibly sales and distribution of the product.  In this sense the product manager’s responsibilities go beyond those of the project manager.  After all, a product life cycle usually lasts longer than that of a project life cycle.
The question may arise to which extend a product manager needs to get involved in project manager.  It depends on the quality of project management.  At the end of the day it is the product manager who is accountable for the success of the product.  Hence, he/she must have more than a sincere interest that the project of the product development is running smoothly and delivers the desired results.  This implies that a good product manager should at least be knowledgeable of basic project management principles.  Ideally, a product manager has a solid project management understanding.  There may be cases where he/she has to make decisions escalated to him/her.  In this case, it is important to be able to read the complete project environment to come to a just conclusion.  In other cases, the product manager may be asked to coach or monitor the project manager.  In any case, it pays off for the product manager to know as much as possible about project manager based on own experience.
On the other hand, the project manager should have at least a basic understanding of the needs, expectations and processes of product management.  Often product management is the client of project management and its team.  Consequently, the project manager should treat product management as its client.

Buttom line, both the project and product manager need to work together in a team for the time of the project.  Roles and resonsibilities need to be clearly defined.  They must not interfere into each other’s realm of influence.  Instead, they should both strive for synergy effects and win-win outcomes.

On this token, please have a look at our white paper on requirements which can be downloaded from our website.

Posted in: Leadership, Project Management

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Agile Project Management: The Natural Way

In a recent coment I wrote, “AGILE PROJECT MANAGEMENT has been a topic at the [PMI] conference. Indeed, I believe there were 2-3 presentations on this very topic. For example, Michele Sliger, co-author of the newly published and excellent book “The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility (Agile Software Development Series)”, talked about Agile Project Management.

In addition, agile project management was referenced in many other presentations.

I want to go a step further and state that agile project management is the natural way of effective project management.   There are very good reasons for this hypthesis to be true.  Textbooks suggest that project life cycles are linear.  This means that a project evolves along a pre-defined path:  initation – planning – executing – monitor & control – closeout.  This, for example, is what the PMBOK suggests.  Unfortunately, reality is more complex.  Indeed I have not seen a single project which has strictly followed this sequence.  Instead, a project goes from one phase to another and may jump back or forth.  Tom Johns of Business Management Consultants illustrated this in his presentation “The Art of Project Management (c) Complexity” at the PMI Global Congress 2008 in Denver.

I believe that every effective project manager has to be familiar with agile project management to survive, to cope with unexpected changes without losing control.

Regarding the various approaches of agile, let it be Scrum, XP, RUP, etc., it doesn’t matter.  As a matter of fact my experience shows that a hyprid approach may work best.  It has to be customized to the respective project environment and organization.  Strictly following a doctrine without looking left or right is narrow minded and one-dimensional.  It neglects the reality of complexity we are living in.  If doing so, you may be better off or at as well of following a traditional, linear waterfall approach thinking this may be good, structured project management.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Any model, may it be a waterfall or agile approach, serves as a guideline.  The art of project management is to identify and use simple rules which help constitute guidelines for effective and efficient project work which yield tangible results which are in sync with the vision and objectives of the project and the project organization.

Posted in: PMI Congress Denver 10'08, Project Management

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PMI Global Congress – Reflections, Part I

Wow, what a conference!  I cannot remember any conference or professional meeting I ever attended where there was such a wealth of knowledge, interesting people, inspiring ideas.  It will take a time to digest all the information.  All I can say is that I highly recommend this conference to anyone seriously interested in project management – and leadership.

The sessions I attended dealt with project leadership (vs. simple project management), complexity of projects, PMOs, communication to and for executives. In a nutshell?

  • The insights about how to set up and manage PMOs were not new but re-assuring.
  • Project leadership becomes ever more important in a complex world.
  • Effective project leaders manage executives to act for the success of a project.

Now, there is much more to it.  Of course, there is.  And I will write more about it in the days and weeks to come.  So stay tuned.

Posted in: Leadership, PMI Congress Denver 10'08, Project Management

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does a word still count?

… it depends.

My philosphy is that it should.  For example, in case of promises, commitments for a new project.  This has happend to me lately.  Unfortunately, the client could not back his verbal approval of a proposal of mine with a written email or alike.  In times of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) this proved to be difficult.  Procurement or controlling have to formerly approve every single proposal.  Now, this is not new.  But why does this need to take so long.  There is a good reason for the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and we needed it.  The downside is that well too often it has slowed down business significantly because it has increased the workload of procurement and controlling departments significantly.  In addition, controlling and procurement departments may not have the business understanding to approve project proposals.  And it should not be necessary because other departments make these decisions.  Not so with SOX.

In my case, I believed in a commitment given to me which was not yet in writing.  I stopped my acquisition activities for other projects.  This was a costly mistake.  For 3 weeks later I am still waiting for the final written confirmation that I can start the new engagement.

Lesson learnedWhen it comes to contractual work, a word is good but worth nothing unless it is in writing and formally approved by the relevant departments (controlling, procurement, etc.).  Do not interrupt business development activities until you have actually started the new engagement.

Posted in: Project Management

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