Monthly Archives: March 2012

Listen for Leadership

As Project Managers, we are coached in many ways to be leaders. Often this advice involves speaking authoritatively, acting decisively and even dressing in a commanding fashion. Very seldom are we actually taught the techniques by which or even the value of actually listening to your team members.

Before you read on, unfortunately, I am not able to spew educated advice on the skill of actively listening. However, I have recently been reminded of just how important a use of my time it is and I wanted to emphasize this with all of you.

Truly exhausted, writing this at 30,000 feet tonight I am primarily drained from the effort it required to actively listen to stakeholders on a project for which we held a public meeting this evening. I was fairly well prepared with engineering facts, financial forecasts and schedule projections. I presented much of this information in a well scripted delivery full of enthusiasm, empathy and determination. A strong Project Manager. In hindsight however, I believe that much of this may have fallen on deaf ears. Tonight was our turn to listen to the people. Regardless of their contribution, tonight, my job was to patiently and earnestly listen to their thoughts and concerns.

This is a teaching moment for myself and all PM’s out there. Constantly pulled in all directions and taught to lead in all actions, the true skill of actively listening is not only difficult but rarely cracks the top ten priority list for us, the overworked. Many blogposts describe teambuilding techniques and leadership traits which endear PM’s to their teams. Tops on the underrated list of mandatory leadership qualities is, first the willingness and second the skill to actively listen to your team members.

I state these two subsets of listening in separate and intentional order. I do believe that your willingness to try, in this case, is not only mutually exclusive to, but more important than, your skill. For many, it is arguably more difficult to prioritize the activity of listening above the monumental to-do list you are facing. This is a very large misjudgment of priorities.

Only after having listened first will your team know that you understand and have considered their input. They are appreciated and you will be a better PM and leader for it (you might just learn something!). In the end, all leadership recommendations remain valid. Your fact based, authoritative and just management style is critical to your teams success. You won’t have to apologize for going against team members’ recommendations if they know that you listened to them first before guiding the team in the best direction for the project. When you do speak, do so authoritatively, but only after honest and active listening.

It is in the act of listening that the true opportunity to lead is provided. You must begin here before you can act decisively as a Project Manager.


Fixed Cost – Variable Scope

I recently blogged about a traditional fixed scope – variable cost procurement framework and the merits to this low-bid scenario. Today I wanted to turn the tables and discuss what at first glance can seem a little more open-ended approach: fixed cost – variable scope. Essentially, budget is never not an issue on a given project, but when is it so constrictive that you would cut scope (or add it) to spend only what (or exactly all) you have? Let’s discuss the benefits and pitfalls to this RFP structure:


–          I’ll Gladly Take More, Thank You: If you have the money to spend and additional scope is available beyond what you had anticipated, why not just get the job done in full now rather than coming back in a few years?

–          Budget Certainty: I know exactly what I am going to spend. No more, No less. This is important to agencies of all sizes. If I get more scope for my buck – great; if I have to cut scope to stay on budget – that is reality. Budget it King.

–          You Don’t Really Know What you Want: You have a pretty good idea to guide the proposers with, but in reality, you aren’t completely sure exactly what you want. Furthermore, you are completely open to suggestions on how to improve your scope…within your budget. Don’t sell yourself short…get what you deserve.


–          The Tail Wagging the Dog: Do you really have to live and die for that budget to the extent that you are cutting valuable scope just to keep from an overrun? Do what is truly needed for the project and figure out a way to keep the costs in check but out of the driver’s seat.

–          You are a Sucker: Salesmanship 101 – with this approach you will almost certainly be sold something you really don’t need. Could that money be better spent elsewhere?

–          The Contractors / Consultants don’t Really Know What you Want Either: You may end up with different scope offered from multiple proposers for the same costs with few metrics to value apples vs oranges. Someone’s gotta lose, at least make the rules fair.

I am personally a big fan of this approach, but set your base goals / scope high. You will be impressed by what the market can bear. On the other end of the spectrum; money doesn’t grow on trees. Budget often is King and this approach will help you reach your #1 goal.

What’s your preferred approach? Fixed Costs or Fixed Scope?

Fixed Scope – Variable Cost

In a traditional solicitation an organization may assemble specifications within a Request for Proposal (RFP) which clearly spells out precisely the effort and deliverables to be provided. Typically this contract is then awarded to the firm able to provide these explicit items for the lowest cost. Occasionally the evaluation may include some qualifications or performance based metrics in addition to low-bid, but ultimately the “best” firm wins – right?

Let’s discuss a few pros and cons to that approach to consider before your next contractor / consultant procurement:


–          I’ll gladly pay less, Thank You: You know exactly what it is that you want and are able to articulate it highly effectively leaving little room for misinterpretation or subversion. Please give it to me and I will gladly pay less.

–          Black & White: Your RFP / advertisement leaves nothing to question. You are clear to proposers on your project requirements and goals. You will get exactly what you ask for, nothing less.

–          Manage what you Know: As the Owner, you are in the best position to determine what the scope should be. You may not be in the best position to determine how much you should pay for it. Let the market answer that question.

–          Competition is a Great Thing: In some respects, it’s the American Way. Let the cream rise to the top and if you’re the best, you win. This isn’t a charity.


–          There’s Always Ambiguity: Just how sure are you? At the time of procurement, are you really that confident – not only in your scope, but in your definitions and project controls? It will never be apples-to-apples

–          How Simple is Your Shell Game?: Supposedly if you have money left over after your low bid, you can apply it to the next project. Just how simple of a paperwork shell game is that for your organization? Would it be simpler to add scope while you are at it on one project then re-allocating?

–          Do it Right the First Time: Of course budget is always a factor, but let’s not come back three more times to get the job done. If your contractor can give you more scope while they are impacting the area, just get it done while they are out there. You will waste more money assembling the next project to complete what could have been done the first time.

–          Buy the Job: Everyone wants to save money, but is the bottom line really the bottom line? How many times would you have gladly paid more to have a more well-qualified firm do the job than saving a buck on the low bidder only to pay in headaches every day from then on.


On every project there is a delicate balance between Scope and Budget. What is more well defined at bid time? What is more flexible to your project? To get the most out of your procurement you have to ask these questions and have answers and project controls that are as explicit and air-tight as possible to get what you want. Do you know what you want?

Everyone has a Boss…I have Four

Depending on the structure of your organization, team members may be assigned directly to a Project Manager or to their discipline leaders and are only on loan to the project team. For the purposes of this post, we will discuss a loose matrix management structure that I am most familiar with; one where the project manager has little to no actual authority over the individual team members. How do you motivate and discourage in this environment and how do you keep competing interests from tearing at the teams’ resources?

First, I would like to discuss the reality that in this example, the PM can feel reduced to a series of asking “pretty please” and offering “glances of disappointment” to encourage and discourage behavior. With little to no formalized authority, you can be left feeling a little impotent as the team leader. Furthermore, the members of the team may feel conflicted and frustrated by the contrary direction they may be receiving from yourself as the PM and their discipline supervisor and/or other PM’s for additional teams they may be on. To reconcile this I will suggest first and foremost that you appeal to the true desire to succeed and please within each of your team members. One could postulate that this requires careful assembly of an excellent team in the first place, but let’s just stipulate to that for now. Everyone wants to do a good job for the team. Why then, doesn’t everyone do a good job for the team?

–          Opportunity for Input: Your team members will be more likely to take ownership and respond to assignments and deadlines if they feel like they had an opportunity to provide input into creating that goal. Even if you have to negotiate with your team members to some degree to get them to accomplish what is needed, the PM should let them have their say.

–          Gain their Endorsement: After offering the opportunity for input, the PM may formally request their endorsement on that goal. This formal endorsement can vary from their signature on a PMP to a restatement in a summary email confirming your understanding to meeting minutes. This will trigger the team members’ desire to succeed and please just that much more strongly and will reduce misunderstandings.

–          Communicate the Direction: While being careful to not make your team members feel like they are being disrespected, make sure you keep their boss(es) included on major developments. If the team is utilizing a resource which is technically “on loan” from the discipline lead for something other than what was originally requested, that needs to be conveyed to all.

Finally, be empathetic to your teammates and their serfdom. They are being pulled in various directions and so are you. The problem may well be above your and your team members’ heads, but for the purposes of this blog and likely the purposes of your reality as a PM, let’s focus on what you can, if not control, at least influence: your project team. While affording your team members’ opportunity for input, lay the goals and milestones out for them in black and white, gain their endorsement on that plan, schedule, or action item and hold them accountable in the most impactful means you have at your disposal. That goes for celebration of successes as well!

How many bosses do you have?

Consistently Wrong – how much does Consistency matter in Project Management?

In many respects, project management fundamentals emanate from some form of structure or process or plan. These formats may vary wildly from project to project and process to process, but at their core, they represent something for the team to hold on to and something to guide the team through the many uncertainties that the project and their own individual work lives will throw at them. There are innumerable variables within every project and a large portion of the core mission of the project manager is to introduce some manner of constancy into the equation.

The ubiquitous tool for introduction of such steadiness to the project team is the Project Management Plan. The all-encompassing guide of guides, sufficiently vague to provide all and no guidance at once. As much as I clearly disdain the effort required to assemble and gain endorsement on the PMP, it is hardly deniable that it has the potential to lay the foundation for consistency with your team.

So you have followed your steps appropriately, put forth the necessary forethought, developed an appropriately vague yet project specific PMP and gained your team’s endorsement. Just one more time for those in the cheap seats; it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if the Project Manager does not execute this plan with CONSISTENCY!

This is a much broader concept than it may appear at first glance. Hidden within my description of an “appropriately vague” PMP are dozens of ‘…at the sole discretion of the Project Manager…’ sorts of situations. It is my opinion then that it is the responsibility of the PM to attempt to engender trust through the consistency of their own actions. For me this starts with a few fundamentals:

–          Be Prepared: Help set an expectation for professional excellence through your own actions. If you expect this of others, you must demand it from yourself at all times. Of all the variables, this is one of few truly within your control.

–          Check your Attitude at the Door: Not that this is my strong-suit either, but what happens outside of those team interactions should stay there. Everyone has their ups and downs, but do your best to present a consistent demeanor to your team. They will learn how to act based on your responses. This is more important than you realize!

–          Fair is Fair: Strive to know yourself and your personal core values as a PM. Whether the rules are in writing or implied, don’t let the circumstances influence your decisions as much as the facts. You will gain more respect for being fair than nice or prepared in my opinion.

–          Acknowledge Fallibility: You are going to make mistakes. So are your team members. If you stick to the points above, admitting your mistakes and accepting your team members’ will be a reasonable fact of life that we all can respect.

Is it better to be consistently wrong than unpredictably wrong? Please share your thoughts!

The Executive Decision – When timely is better than Right?

You have heard the clichés before: ‘Proceed until apprehended’; ‘better 95% correct now than 100% correct later’; ‘ask for forgiveness later instead of asking for permission now’, etc. Much of this blog is dedicated to that delicate balance many project managers must find between complete democracy and total dictatorship, and today I want to highlight the value in a just, yet decisive project manager.

In my mind, what separates this decisive leader from a micro-managing, over-controlling, dictator of a PM is their timing. It’s not that you can’t be involved to a degree in many decisions or even involved in most the process leading up to each decision. In fact, to the extent that you are able to delegate decision making authority, you should do so yet remain abreast of their progress. However, it is important to pick your moments for input. Some key thoughts to summarize:

–          Listen First – Speak Last: give your team an opportunity to explain themselves thoroughly without weighing in with your position through comment or body language. If you like the direction they are headed, commend them and praise them. If not, subtly seek to guide it in a different direction. Your position may be different, but it rarely makes theirs wrong.

–          Empower your decision makers – And Honor that Commitment to Them: PM’s will often describe their efforts to empower their team members to proceed autonomously thereby improving morale and distributing tasks. Those PM’s then need to walk the walk. If you told your discipline lead that it is their call, you better just make sure they make that call in a timely fashion. You have abdicated this decision and reserve only the most infrequent veto authority.

–          Schedule is your Gospel – Make sure it is Clear:  When managing these decisions, whether they fall on your desk or a team members’, let the project schedule drive the bottom line. This may provide you with a scapegoat of sorts when making that Executive Decision when others appear to be deadlocked. The project must move forward and you are the ultimate arbiter. When the time is up, if the decision hasn’t been made, you will make it. Setting these expectations up front as you delegate decision making will keep you on solid ground at crunch time.

–          SELL IT!:  A good decision now truly is better than a great decision later in many, many instances. Perhaps it is just my personal style, but when you have followed the above steps; sat back and listened to your team first, let your discipline leaders lead, and set clear expectation on schedule, it is now your call. Make it, and make it with just the right blend of humility and conviction.

Remember always, you may not be right, but you will own your decisions, value your teams’ input and make a just and timely decision when it is necessary. That is why you are the project manager. If you follow these steps it will help you to earn your teams’ respect in this role.

What elements of just and appropriate executive decision making have I left out? Please share your thoughts with us.

The role of Documentation in Project Communication

At the heart of every project failure to one degree or another you will find poor communication. On the surface this often seems like a simple task that many project managers have a natural grasp of. It is often a skill which has led them to the positions they are in. Regardless of natural aptitude, sooner or later there are minute details or sheer volume of information that will overwhelm even the most effective communicators. That is why we need a PLAN. Let’s start today discussing the role of documentation in this Communication Plan.

To put it simply, I am often not necessarily all that thoughtful, and I also have a poor memory. Now, I am a male, but perhaps that is beside the point. The point is that I will often forget to inform everyone who should be informed (not thoughtful) and will often forget the foundations for decisions that were made in the past (poor memory). Much of my personal project management style is founded in informal forms of communication: phone calls, face-to-face conversations, open dialogue during meetings. It is so critical for me to document these discussions in one form or another to improve communication and to memorialize decisions for the record.

The problem often is that this secondary act of record-keeping is often overlooked due to time constraints. You have held your meeting, completed a 2 hour teleconference, or made some great progress with a team member during a one-on-one visit to their office. This is excellent work. Don’t lose that value by letting it fade into the dark. Meeting minutes have long been a staple of formal meetings and I would recommend them as a continued must for every project. This alone takes a fair amount of commitment. But often more importantly is the written summation via email or memorandum of those smaller group or individual conversations; for two reasons:

  1. Obviously, it records the decisions for future review (assuming you file it somewhere that you can find later … another topic!)
  2. It requires that the composer of the record re-state the conversation in writing, adding to their understanding of the decisions that were made and allowing the other participants in the conversation to review, clarify if needed, and often most importantly, concur in writing!

This is a tedious but valuable aspect of project management. You should set minimum standards for communication documentation, assign responsibility to individuals for compiling these written accounts and establish filing/distribution protocol for this documentation.

If it saves you once, and it will, it will be worth it. It is a tax you have to pay for a successful project!