3 ways to manage difficult Project Sponsors

The role of the project sponsor is key in the success of a project. The sponsor must ensure the alignment of the project with the strategy of the organization, he must champion the project in front of other senior managers and provide ongoing direction as the project evolves. And his responsibility does not end when the project finishes; he must also ensure that the client makes effective use of the project deliverables to achieve the results planned in the business case.

So the role of the project sponsor is strategic; she must be an enabler to create the conditions for the project team to work successfully and let the project manager the day-to-day execution.

However, many times project sponsors do not have the skills, the experience or just the awareness of their duties regarding the project and how they can affect its final outcome. What can we do as project managers to:

  • detect this risk for the project
  • help the sponsor to fulfil his/her obligations

Find out sponsor’s expectations on the project

In a subtle way, a communications and risk assessment strategy con be prepared so that the PM can adapt his/her approach and communication methods to obtain the maximum support from the sponsor. An effective approach is to ask open questions to the sponsor in your first meeting with him, like: ‘What are your expectations for this project? What kind of risks would you consider? What is the level of priority of this project in your strategy? This kind of approach will allow you to learn more than by asking closed and very focused questions.

Early discovery of the sponsor capabilities and capacities

During the first meetings with the sponsor it is important also to assess his capabilities regarding this role and also his capacity to assume the workload that it involves. It is common that  sponsors are very busy executives who have a full time ordinary activity and the sponsorship of a project is something added to their usual job.

Moreover the interest in the project by the sponsor is critical an should not be taken for granted. Sometimes there are sponsors who are assigned to a project just because there must be a sponsor or because the project outcome is somehow related with their function. This situation will affect the project day-to-day and the involvement of the sponsor in the project.

The sooner the situation is detected the earlier the project manager can start preparing a plan to manage the risks. One possible option is helping the sponsor build his/her sponsorship competencies by framing possible solutions to the problems you escalate and explain the options.

The Project Sponsor as a facilitator

Finally, it is important to confirm that the sponsor understands that he should not interfere in the day-to-day  of the project. The project manager is responsible for this. The sponsor would better be a facilitator that helps the project manager and provides the necessary organizational support needed to make strategic decisions and create a successful outcome from the project.

What is your experience? Have you ever had to deal with a difficult sponsor? What was your strategy?

 

3 ways to manage difficult Project Sponsors

4 situations where the communication channel matters

Communications are the area where project managers spend most of their time. It is a complex and important area because interacting with people is complex and because it significanty affects the way others see the project, their perceptions.

Choosing the most appropriate communication channel in each situation is crucial to be successful in critical situations.

In general, we have synchronous communication tools, like phone, videoconference, personal meetings or just conversations in the corridors. And also asynchronous tools like email. Chat could be considered a mix between both; it is supposed to be synchronous but many people use it asynchronously.

Let’s analyze some situations now and get some insights about the prefered channels in each case:

  • There is a serious problem in the project. It must be solved urgently as it will affect seriously the delivery date or the quality or the costs of the project.
    • Direct conversation with the client or the project sponsor. Prefered channel: formal or informal personal meeting. If not posible, video conference (the posibility of seeing you increases the chances of success because it transmits also non verbal language) or phone call.
    • After the conversation write an email to confirm the agreements.
  • There is a misunderstanding with a remote collaborator related with specific details of a technical issue.
    • Email with the details followed immediately by a video conference or phone call to clarify.
  • A decision about an issue must be taken by a group of stakeholders. It is a very open point where different approaches could be valid.
    • Meeting with all the involved stakeholders, preferably in person. Alternatively a video or audio conference could be an acceptable option.
    • Follow up email with the minutes of the meeting and the summary of action points agreed upon.
  • One of the project stakeholders disagrees publicly with you and uses an email with many other recipients in the loop.
    • Call him, or better meet him in person, and try to solve the issue directly with him.
    • After the meeting go back to the email and share the conclusions with the rest.

What do you think about the approaches to these situations? Have you been involved in any of them or a similar one? How did you manage it? Did it work?

4 situations where the communication channel matters

Do’s and don’ts when taking over a troubled project

When you become a senior project manager there are more chances that your boss or other managers may trust you when they face a troubled project and need you to bring it back to the path of success.

If they trust you for such kind of mission critical tasks you must be proud. But, after the first moments of increased self-esteem, what do you have to do in order to not deceive the confidence they are placing in you? And what should you avoid?

The following list reflects some points I consider as we must do or avoid in these situations:

The Do’s

  • Set stakeholder expectations
  • Read, look and listen (contract, project requirements,…)
  • Talk to every team member individually and grasp its vision of how the project arrived to that situation
  • Formulate what must be changed
  • Work with the team with new baselines and deliverables definition
  • Reschedule
  • Follow-up the project continuously (advance versus estimations, costs, …) and act immediately in case of deviations
  • Be transparent with the team about the consequences of continuing with the previous  ways of working and get their commitment to apply the changes
  • Change any team member uncommited or who is in a negative mood about the project (that might be spread to the rest of the team)
  • Look for improvements in the project and praise the team for them
  • Catch immediately any undesired behaviour and correct it

The Don’ts

  • Do not make commitments until you have obtained the full picture of the situation
  • Do not badmouth the previous project manager. It is not professional and your client (internal or external) does not need to have transparency of your internal problems
  • Do not criticize publicly any team member (praise in public, criticism privately)
  • Do not exchange quality for speed

 

This is my list but I am sure it can be improved with your comments. I’d love to read your comments and update it with your personal experience.

 

Do’s and don’ts when taking over a troubled project

4 bases to implement Kaizen in project management

Sometimes it is hard to stablish a system of continuous improvement in a project management office (PMO). A kind of discipline is needed to find out new ways of doing things better in a systematic way.

There are 4 bases that may help us in this challenging process: the use of foundational principles, a systematic approach, to become a learning organization and to be aware and overcome the obstacles.

Foundational principles

  • Let’s think about how can we make something happen instead of why it cannot be done
  • Develop a continuous change mindset
  • Use the 5-whys or other similar tools to find the root causes of the problems
  • Measure what you do to be able to notice if you improve

We must take the time to understand why things went wrong, measure successes and failures, and document them along the way. The wisdom must be accessible to others as well.

The Kaizen approach is to start the change, or the improvement, and build on it over time, rather than to expect perfection from the start. Project managers must focus on doing the job a little better each day.

 

Systematic approach to continuous improvement

It is not just about a mindset. To obtain results we must make changes, create new habits and do it in a systematic way. These six steps may be of help:

  1. Select opportunities. In your projects, set improvement milestones.  Chose the areas where less effort might have the greatest impact. Involve all the team in this point, in the second one and in the fourth one too.
  2. Find and analyze the root causes of the problems.
  3. Determine the required level of performance.
  4. Define solutions and plan tasks. Every task must have a person responsible of it and a deadline.
  5. Deploy the action plan and evaluate the results against the desired performance.
  6. Improve or change the solutions if the results do not provide the expected level.
  7. Find new opportunities.

 

Learning organizations

Learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Peter Senge)

Continuous improvement is strongly connected to learning organizations. To become a truly learning organization you need to continuously improve.

 

Obstacles to grow as a PMO

What kind of obstacles may limit our ability to grow as a learning PMO?

  • Isolation. Every project manager works in her/his projects disconnected from the rest of project managers. The improvement efforts are not coordinated.
  • Lack of reflection. The rush to move to the next project or to the next project phase or task.
  • Attitude. In this point we might include the lack of interest in improving the organization and also the systematic denial of problems existence.
  • Lack of support from the leaders. The leaders of the organization and the PMO Manager must not just support but encourage their teams to continuously learn and improve.

In order to support the improvement in project management it should be a duty of the PMO to provide a systematic framework to help the project teams to learn and improve.

What is your opinion? Do you have this kind of continuous improvement framework in your organizations?

 

 

4 bases to implement Kaizen in project management

Mixing Agile and Waterfall aproaches for projects

Many organizations have decided that there is no need to choose between Agile and Waterfall aproaches to manage projects. There is a sinthesys solution than can be tested in some environments.

The project management world has followed a triad evolution, as in Hegel’s dialectical method. Waterfall was the thesis, Agile the antithesis … and now there are approaches that try to be a kind of synthesis of both models. A logical evolution.

 

Mixed approaches

How can agile and waterfall be combined?

There are differents approaches to achieve the convergence of both mindsets:

 

Benefits of a mixed system

What are the benefits of these kind of approaches?

Probably there will be people used to work in ‘pure agile’ or ‘pure waterfall’ environments who will say that these approaches are just a perversion of the core values of their project management systems.

Nevertheless I think there might be situations where these options may be valuable:

  • Organizations who are transitioning from waterfall to agile and vice versa and need to remain in an intermediate step for some time instead of moving directly from one environment to the other one.
  • Organizations where the top management is used to deal with waterfall project managers and whose development teams have found that they achieve a better performance being agile.
  • Complex and big projects where there is part of software development and part of hardware or infrastructure deployment.

 

What is your opinion? Have you tried any hybrid approach to project management? What were the results?

Do you know any other hybrid approach to project management? I would like to know more about it, please add comment with your explanation.

 

 

Mixing Agile and Waterfall aproaches for projects

7 tips to work with virtual teams

Let’s say it. Executing projects with virtual teams has many advantages but, in spite of the many tools that are currently available to improve the communication between team members when they are not co-located, working with virtual teams has an added level of difficulty. Is it possible to take advantage of the benefits without die trying?

I have been managing some virtual teams in the last year and also following the way other project managers in our PMO were doing it. With these experiences and some documentation from experts that I have read recently I have gathered 7 recommendations to have chances of success when you have to manage a virtual team.

7 tips

  1. Be available and keep frequent formal and informal conversations with the team.
  2. Provide the appropiate channels and encourage your team to share their feelings and chat informally whenever they can. It should be a kind of water cooler, using separate chat channels, for instance.
  3. This has not been my case but if there are cultural differences between your team members it is crucial to promote cultural training for all members. For instance, Mediterranean workers are used to take more time for lunch than their northern team mates. It is important that the team understands and respects it whenever it is possible.
  4. Use video calls preferably over chat and email. And, if possible, it is good to have a regular structured video call with the whole team.
  5. Schedule a periodical in-person meeting from time to time. It is better if you can do it early on the beginning of the project.
  6. Provide a rhythm to the team. Stablish regular meetings (same days and time each week) and use best practices of meeting governance.
  7. Introduce the practice of sending a status email at the end of the day to recap the status of on-going tasks and to inform the team members on updates from the customer or other stakeholders.

The key is to treat your far team members the same as your team members who work in your immediate vincinity. Respect them, listem to them, feel their needs and stay in personal and emotional communication constantly.

 

7 tips to work with virtual teams

A different kind of PMO. Lean-Kanban PMO.

When you talk about a PMO to a group of developers or designers or even project managers there are many prejudices about this kind of entity and in many cases a negative perception of its work.

This biased opinions have their foundations in the way PMOs tend to be used by organizations. As David Joyce explains in this presentation at the LKCE12, they focus on:

  • Governance: control. Monitoring and reporting.
  • Compliance: execution. Processes compliance prevail on delivering value to the client.

Another mindset of traditional PMOs is to maximize utilization of the resources: “The more we start, the more we finish”.  This mindset has 2 problems:

  • Increases the WIP (Work In Progress) and causes unnecessary stress to the team.
  • Increases the time to finish, as the TOC (Theory of Constraints) explains in this presentation from Teoce (in Spanish language). Starting many projects leads us to multitasking. And multitasking isn’t usually well managed. We should move from one task in a project, to another one in another project only if the first one is finished. We should jump between tasks only when it is possible to generate flow. Our project portfolio should be managed as a pull process in order to avoid overloading it.

Another kind of PMO is possible

Instead, the PMO mindset should be “The more we finish, the more we finish” as Markus Hammarberg explains in this post. “Stop starting, start finishing”.

Kanban can be a very interesting tool to improve a PMO, as it allows visual management of projects and the portfolio. This allows to keep informed the senior management limiting the overhead caused by traditional reports and meetings.

But there are other benefits that support this different approach for the PMO:

  • Risk management can be performed making work constantly visible and keeping the team together to be able to take quick decisions.
  • Break down big projects into small pieces that can be frequently delivered and allowing the teams to adapt to the changing needs of the business.
  • Producing and mantaining a dashboard of leading strategic metrics (value delivered, overall speed, quality and cost of delivery, lead times,…)

Portfolio and pipeline management deserve a special chapter and lean can be very useful for this purpose. Lean aims to focus in allocating the resources on highest priority projects to make them finish earlier and avoid starting new projects until resources are available.

What is your experience?

I think lean principles, TOC and kanban can be good project management tools in a PMO. They are a powerful way to:

  • increase value delivered
  • reduce lead times
  • improve management reporting through visual boards

and also Kanban can be introduced incrementally, step by step, without the need to implement drastic changes in the organization. What do you think?

A different kind of PMO. Lean-Kanban PMO.