Moving House

The Q2 Associates blog is moving. Its new home is here:

Old posts have been copied across, so everything can be found there. New posts will only be made on the new location – i.e. no new content will appear here. This is the last blog post on the old location.

Subscribers have also been migrated (hopefully), and to prove it later today you can expect to receive a notification of the first blog post from the new location.

Posted in Project Management

What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon

One voice amongst many

One voice amongst many

I never wanted to be a project manager. At various times in my life, I have wanted to be an astronaut, a physicist, a programmer, a telecoms engineer, a telecoms manager, a product manager, a management consultant and a teacher. But never a project manager.

Like many in our profession, I am an accidental project manager. I just sort of stumbled into it unintentionally, only realising that I had become one when others started attaching the PM title to me.

Why, then, did I drift in this direction? What is it about project management that others recognised in me? (And I’m far from unique here; I think this is very much a shared experience.)

I like driving. I enjoy the act of planning and executing a route, and adapting as needed depending on traffic conditions. The discipline also appeals to me: driving is a skill that can be learnt, and developed. It helps to have a destination in mind, but even that isn’t essential; I’m happiest of all when driving round and round in circles on a track day. There is “best practice”, but there are also differing views on driving technique. On track, I enjoy trying different lines to find out what works best for me.

The analogy with project management should be obvious. There are those of us that enjoy the journey, and managing the journey, in and of itself. Having a clear destination is great – but what really matters to the project manager is finding the best way to get there. There are opportunities to try out new approaches, and to optimise the journey. Project management is a road movie. And having arrived safely (hopefully), project managers are immediately looking forward to the next trip. The journey is the important part: making things happen.

So that is what project management means to me. Project management is about making things happen, and project managers are people that like to make things happen.

Once I accepted the mantle of “project manager”, the next step was to look for best practice, start to try out alternatives, and accumulate the bits that seem to work for me. I have being doing this for around 10 years now, and the distillation has been The Seven Essentials, which you can read about on this blog. Very little of The Seven Essentials is truly original, of course. It is mostly borrowed (some would say stolen) from the best practice of colleagues, consultants and experts that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over the years, as well as some input from Prince2, PMI PMBOK and other recognised standards.

The fun part is that project management best practice can never be complete. There are always new challenges, new approaches, new tools and technologies. So I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Every project has its “what can I learn from this?” moments.

That is why I am excited about participating in #pmFlashBlog. It has been a challenge to write this article. As a “sermon”, it is perhaps more personal and soul-searching than my usual style. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to read all the other contributions, which surely will provide new and thought-provoking themes to explore in the pursuit of project management excellence.


This article is my contribution to the #pmFlashBlog event, in which over 7(and counting) PM bloggers will publish simultaneously at 01:00 GMT on 25 September 2013, on the same topic: “What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon”

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Between the Mountains and the Clouds


I have been invited to present a bar camp session at the Thomson Reuters London PM UnConference 2013.  The topic is “soft skills”. If you are planning to attend my session and it hasn’t happened yet, please stop reading now, as there are spoilers below!

The topic was selected from a list of topics that had been requested by invitees. I am rather intrigued to know why it was suggested, and what on earth they hope to gain from the session. Surely nobody expects to learn soft skills in 30 minutes? If so, they’re going to be disappointed!

What are soft skills?

It’s a vague and fluffy term, and I intend to keep it that way. Some dislike calling it that, and I have heard “intrinsic skills” offered as an alternative – which I understand to mean the skills that are within us. “People skills” is another option.

It might be easier to define what it is not. It is not the “hard skills” of project planning, progress tracking and reporting – which is what many people think project management is all about. But practitioners with any experience know that project management is a whole lot more than that.

Why is it important?

Let’s look at The Seven Essentials, and consider the hardness or softness of each. I’m going to borrow the Mohs Scale, which is, of course, an appropriate way to measure hardness. It goes from very soft (1 – Talc) to very hard (10 – Diamond).

Benefits tend to be hard business targets “achieve revenue of xx”, “reduce cost of operation by yy”, but may – or rather, should – also have a soft element such as “improve customer satisfaction by zz”. Hardness: 7.

Scope and Quality also tend to be defined in hard business language: “implement this new system”, but for change projects might encompass soft elements: “reorganise this department, and improve staff morale”. Hardness: 6.

Stakeholders and Communications are strongly soft factors, since we are dealing with human beings and their aspirations. Hardness: 2.

Plan. A traditional project management skill, and can be largely mechanical. Needs just a smattering of people skills to gain buy-in. Hardness: 9

Team. Entirely about getting the best out of people. Plenty of talc needed. Hardness: 1

Suppliers are people too, so a mix of soft and hard skills are called for. Negotiation is often a surprisingly soft skill, with a hard edge (“Speak softly, and carry a big stick” – Theodore Roosevelt). Hardness: 5

Risks arise from all sources in and around the project. When things go wrong, it is often a communications and/or human problem at the core. Hardness: 4

The point I’m trying to illustrate is that most of what a good project manager does relies on soft skills.

How do I acquire these skills?

When project managers become project managers, they often start by taking a course and a qualification. That is all well and good, but the focus of these accreditations (including PMI, Prince2, APM and IPMA) tends to be hard skills. There is some soft skill content – notably in stakeholder management – and there is recognition of the importance of communications skills, but don’t expect to acquire any of these through a qualification-oriented project management course.

Some trainers incorporate excellent soft skill content in their project management courses, but they don’t tend to be the ones that are built around PM qualifications. If anyone is looking for a more holistic approach, I would be happy to recommend one or two training partners that I have worked with in the past.

Instead, if it is training you need, then look to more general management training topics, such as:

  • Leadership skills
  • People (or team) management
  • Communications skills (which should be wider than just presentation skills)
  • Coaching (or Executive Coaching)

For further inspiration, there are some excellent blogs and twitter feeds worth following. I particularly enjoy:

  • Blogramme by Ian Webster (@IanWebster) – an experienced project manager, who speaks from the heart and from experience
  • Joining the Dots by Anthony Allinson (@allinsona) – a senior manager at Thomson Reuters, who knows far too much about the human aspects of project management
  • Sir John Whitmore’s twitter feed – @PCIntl – for an occasional reminder of the power of asking the right question

…and of course if you are reading this, then you already know about the Q2 Associates blog.

Finally, the best way to develop your soft skills is to get some practice. Stop reading this blog, step away from MS Project, and go and talk to your team!

Here is a link to the presentation material from my Thomson Reuters session:
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Project Start-up Meetings

You know what they say about first impressions? Good. I won’t bother repeating it, then.

For a Project Manager, the Project Start-up Meeting is that chance to make a positive first impression with the team. So it is perhaps surprising how often PMs just seem to “wing it”, without really having thought about the objectives, purpose and process of the meeting. Even worse, some PMs simply don’t seem to bother… which rather sets the tone for the rest of the project.

In response, I offer you this five-minute guide.

The Start-up Meeting is an opportunity to:

  • Ensure everyone understands the purpose of the project. The “big picture”, if you like.
  • Gain commitment and ownership from the team, by involving them in thinking through the process and outcomes.
  • Work through and overcome perceived objections and obstacles.
  • Establish ground rules and working relationships.
  • Display and promote the project manager’s leadership abilities.
  • Build a team, and have a bit of fun.

Depending on the size of the project, the Start-up Meeting can vary in size from a 1-2 hour meeting for the project team, through to a 1-2 day off-site workshop involving core team, extended team, internal and external suppliers, facilitators, etc.

Even for small projects, the meeting should always be held face-to-face (not a telco) to establish intra-team relationships and trust.

Naturally, I recommend applying The Seven Essentials as the basis for an agenda.

  1. Business Benefits. Invite the Project Owner to introduce the vision driving the project, and ideally link it to corporate strategy and objectives. A good Project Owner should be able to do this with passion and enthusiasm, motivating the team to deliver to the best of their abilities, and setting the mood for rest of the meeting.

  2. Scope and Quality. During project initiation, the Project Manager will have established the project’s deliverables, defined to a greater or lesser degree of detail depending on the circumstances. Now is the time to introduce this to the team, examining the definition of Scope, and ensuring a common understanding. Where there is uncertainty or ambiguity, this needs to be explored and understood. Quality requirements also need to be defined. Is a “beta release” approach allowed — with known omissions or faults? Or perhaps there are safety or security requirements that are absolute.

  3. Stakeholders and Communications. Again, the PM will have established an initial view during initiation. The Start-up Meeting provides an opportunity to review and possibly update the Stakeholder list and Communications plan. In particular, ensure that the team is understands and is comfortable with the communications that they can expect to receive, and also that they are committed to the communications that they are expected to provide (e.g. reporting deadlines).

  4. Plan. At least some of the team should have been involved in planning activities already. Now introduce it to the full team, and have them work through their own part to ensure full understanding and commitment. New information may come to light — don’t forget to ask about holiday commitments — so don’t be afraid to update the plan accordingly. Ensure that all activities have a clear owner. Check that appropriate contingency has been built in (based on past experience), and that dependencies are mapped and understood.

  5. Team. Is the team complete? Are there any gaps? Does the team feel empowered, capable and confident of delivering? If not, what needs to be done about it: perhaps additional skills or resource, specialist input, training? The Start-up Meeting also provides the opportunity to start building a high-performing team, particularly important if these individuals have not worked together before. Within the constraints of company culture and available budget, now is a good time to work in some team-building activities. Try to have some fun!

  6. Suppliers. If possible, include the major suppliers (internal and external) in the Start-up Meeting. They are part of the extended team, and are critical to the project success. Make sure they understand what is expected of them, and why the team relies on them. Understand their constraints, and give them ample opportunity to explain what they need from the team, why, and when.

  7. Risks. Reviewing risks should be a regular team activity, and the Start-up Meeting is the first iteration. Work through the risk register, add new risks as perceived by the team – and retire any that are no longer relevant. Review mitigation actions and assign owners. Review contingency plans.

A well-planned Start-up Meeting gets the project off to a good start, not just in terms of the mechanics of the project (the plan, the tasks, the responsibilities), but also setting the mood and atmosphere – hopefully one of cooperation, enthusiasm, openness and commitment. You should aim to spend enough time speaking to establish authority and leadership, and to spend even more time listening and questioning.

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The Seventh Essential: Risks

Me: "Could you show me your risk register?"
PM: "There are no risks. This project is 100% safe."

Risks are all around us. There is a risk that I might get struck by a meteorite. There is a risk that I might win the lottery (yes, risks can have positive outcomes). In a project management context, a risk is something – anything – that might happen that has an impact on the project outcome.

Most project managers understand the basics of risk management, yet (in my experience) it is often a sadly neglected area. I have yet to see a project that didn’t have a plan of some description, but I have certainly seen quite a few that don’t have a risk register. Personally, given a choice of the two, it is the plan that I would ditch first!

The process of risk management is straightforward:

  1. Identify potential risks.
  2. Classify them, in terms of likelihood and impact.
  3. Identify some mitigation actions – to reduce the probability and the impact.
  4. Identify contingency actions – what will we do if this risk becomes realised?
  5. Review and repeat, frequently.

Identification is not just down to the project manager. The whole team should be involved. A risk review is an opportunity for a high-value discussion with the team members.

There is a reason why “risk” is the seventh and last of The Seven Essentials. It is because the other six are all possible sources of risk. So when reviewing risks, make sure you consider: Benefits, Scope and Quality, Stakeholders and Communications, Plan, Team, and Suppliers.

Also, look at past experience. Ever wondered what “Lessons Learnt” reports are for? Here’s your answer! Review what happened on earlier similar projects, and learn from the mistakes they made. If there isn’t a Lessons Learnt library, seek out PMs with relevant experience. Have your team members done anything similar before? What did they learn?

Estimation of probability and impact may not be an exact science – a “gut feel” may be all you have to go on – but your guess will surely be better than anyone else’s. That’s why you are the project manager. Of course, the result of classifying the risks is the ability to focus on the most damaging and most likely dangers, whilst being aware of but not wasting time on the noise.

Mitigation actions are things you do now to reduce the probability and/or impact of a future risk. Some risks might warrant multiple mitigations. They are actions. They need to be carried out. Put them in your plan. And you don’t have to do them all yourself… that is what the team is for.

Contingency plans are things you do in the future if a risk actually happens, i.e. if it turns into an issue. By having “if this, then that” sub-plans already thought through, you can react quickly to a change in circumstance, thus reducing the impact on your project.

It is no disgrace if a truly unforeseeable event sends your project off-track. But if something that could reasonably have been foreseen takes you by surprise… well, frankly, I would start to question your choice of profession.

None of this is particularly difficult, is it? Nevertheless, in the hundreds of projects that I have reviewed over the years, it is the area most commonly found wanting. Neglected risk registers, or none at all, set my mental alarm bells ringing: is this project manager really in control?

The conversation at the start of this article really happened to me during a project review. It was a high-profile and fairly sizeable IT project. What would your opinion be of the PM?

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Project Management Accreditation (in a corporate setting)

My recent experience includes 9 years in a large corporate environment, where my responsibilities included running an accreditation scheme for project managers.

Why on earth would a company invest in doing something that – surely – is a problem that has already been solved? Wouldn’t it be better to send PMs on an external training course – PMI, or Prince2 perhaps – and have them sit the exams, and become fully qualified to an industry standard?

Well, perhaps – but there are also good reasons for keeping PM accreditation in-house:

  • The scheme can be designed to meet the company’s needs. This mainly means tweaking the syllabus to fit local practices and priorities.
  • If there is an in-house PM methodology (along with tools and processes), the training can incorporate suitable elements.
  • Weaknesses in external schemes can be overcome – for example, by incorporating more “soft skills” training and development than tends to be the case in more traditional schemes.
  • Accreditation levels can be aligned to job descriptions and career paths.
  • Practical on-the-job experience can be incorporated into the scheme, with full understanding of the environment, types of project, levels of seniority, etc.
  • Staff retention is improved, as the accreditation award is recognised and rewarded internally, but is less likely to attract the attention of head-hunters
  • Arguably it is more economical, as savings can be achieved by retaining a training partner and administering the scheme internally (although if the total internal effort is costed honestly, this argument can quickly break down).

The scheme I was responsible for was widely regarded as successful by both the participants and their managers. Typically, a project manager would participate for around 9 months, leading to an accreditation award at an appropriate level to their experience and seniority. During this time they would experience:

  1. Three 2-day training courses, run by an external training partner. At a junior level these would concentrate on the technical skills of project management: planning, scheduling, risk management, and so on. At a more senior level the balance switches to focus on soft skills: stakeholder management, team leadership, conflict resolution, etc.
  2. Peer coaching by a fellow PM, who will have been trained in coaching technique, with formal coaching sessions around once every two weeks.
  3. On-the-job experience of managing a project at the appropriate level, throughout the period. They should be applying the skills learnt in the training sessions, and working with the coach to improve their project delivery.
  4. Evaluation of the project manager through health checks (a minimum of three throughout the period) at which the PM should be able to demonstrate continuous improvement to reach the appropriate level. Also, senior stakeholder feedback is sought through interview, to determine whether the PM has gained the trust and support of managers.

The biggest challenge with the scheme was the “chicken-and-egg” problem of finding a suitable project at the appropriate level. A “learner driver” analogy is useful here – the learner PM is expected to drive a real car on real roads, with real dangers. There is supervision and coaching, but senior stakeholders may be reluctant to trust a “learner” with a business-critical top project.

Nevertheless the scheme operated successfully, and dozens of participants gained their accreditation. After it had been running for a few years, I was interested to find out which of the four components were most valued and which (if any) were disliked. A short survey of past and present participants, and their managers, showed that all parts were supported and highly-rated – much to my delight!

So I think we got it right. The PM Accreditation Scheme is something that am proud of from my time at that employer.

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The Sixth Essential: Suppliers

When I have reviewed projects in the past, “supplier problem” is the most common reason I hear for projects running into difficulty. To some extent, this might be a convenient excuse: it is easy to blame something or someone outwith the project rather than admit failure within the project team. But the PM doesn’t get off the hook that easily, as there are techniques that will improve the chances of project success.

It is really difficult to generalise, as each project situation is different with respect to suppliers. Suppliers range from internal suppliers (such as a test team, office facilities, or HR) through to major sub-contractors supplying multi-millions of equipment and services.

Often, the internal suppliers are the hardest to manage. The problem is lack of accountability to the project manager. If the local IT department can’t provide enough working PCs for your team, what are you going to do about it? If the test team lets you down by rescheduling resources to a higher-priority project, who do you complain to? Best practice here is to establish Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with your internal suppliers. Agree the ground rules up front for critical internal suppliers, so that you know what to expect – and you then have clear grounds for complaint if the SLA is not met. Also, if I ever review your project, I will be more sympathetic to the “poor suppliers” excuse!

External suppliers are more normally governed by a contract, which will include penalty terms for non-conformance. Contracts are usually established by a procurement function – in itself an internal supplier to the project – and in my experience the service that they provide can vary enormously from a simple “standard terms” purchasing function through to taking a real interest in the project and tailoring the terms accordingly. The project manager needs to be fully engaged in procurement activities, to ensure that supplier contracts support the needs of the project.

Some procurement departments believe that their sole function is to buy at lowest price. Beware! If your supplier’s price has been pushed so low as to make the business marginal, then don’t expect to see much engagement from their best people.

The most important factor that a PM needs to think about is the assignment of risk. So in a “time and materials” contract the risk is mostly with the buyer, i.e. the project manager. If timescales slip, it can actually be to the supplier’s financial advantage, as the time and hence the price will increase. The PM needs to manager time & materials suppliers very closely.

At the other extreme, a fixed price contract specifies the deliverables (including quality and time aspects), and the risk of delivery rests with the supplier. If they do not deliver what they promised, on time and to the required quality, then there will be financial penalties to the supplier (usually referred to as “liquidated damages”). In this case, the PM needs to closely involved in defining the contract terms, but once the contract is signed then it is important to take a step back and let the supplier get on with it. Ask questions relating to progress, but leave them to make their own decisions. Changes to requirements may be welcomed by the supplier, as there will be a price tag associated with each change, and you can be sure that they will be looking for a higher profit margin than on the base contract!

Most of all with a fixed price contract, don’t try to interfere. If you, as PM, try to direct the way the supplier acts — no matter how well-intentioned — then in the event of targets being missed the supplier can use the interference as a legal argument to escape penalties.

An interesting and emerging trend is for “open book” contracts. In this approach, once a supplier has been chosen then the risk is shared. It is accepted that the supplier needs to make a profit margin at an agreed rate, and all of their costs are then fully revealed. The PM works with the supplier to agree cost/time/quality decisions with the best project outcome being the primary concern of both parties. If you can get to this situation, it is an ideal way to balance risk.

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