Doing more with less

eight lessons to improve your projects from master project managers


Through extensive interviews and personal contacts, we have been able to identify eight key techniques that Project Managers (PMs) who are considered superior in their field are doing to make their projects better. The techniques are integrated with the fundamental steps of leading a project and are designed to be applicable with any project. Although most PMs may do some of the steps already, these techniques will change the way you look at the steps fundamentally that make the difference between an ordinary PM and someone leading a project.


In this time of global cutbacks, we as PMs are still required to get the job done. It is becoming more and more difficult to actually achieve what we're looking for with deficits in resources and finances. This paper hopes to look at various ways that PMs can, using fewer resources and personnel, become more effective in their project management process.

One of the great challenges in project management is that we all know what needs to be done but do not get a good focus on that issue until something calls our attention to it. In other words, we can get bogged down in the minutiae and miss some of the bigger concepts that will make our lives easier in the long run. This is usually due to the fact that we're putting out small fires on a regular basis. This paper points out several lessons that Master Project Managers™ use to continue to make sure they stay on track and become more and more effective using the same techniques. This paper will investigate several ways in which they do that.

Great PMs never forget the big picture and will point people to it on a regular basis, using it not only as a means of focusing but also as a way of helping people visualize. They do not necessarily compound all sorts of items into one meeting but actually work with the individuals by defining tasks and meetings to be more effective in their processes. Superior PMs use words very carefully. Avoiding words like “I” can change the way a group thinks about the entire organization and, in so doing, uses stories to teach each and every individual the ideas and premises necessary to complete the work that they're talking about. Internally, a superior PM cultivates influence both internally and externally from the organization. This allows him or her to really understand what needs to be done, which is not necessarily the way most people use their power.

One of the ways they develop better influence is by asking questions, recognizing that the questions we ask cannot only tell a lot about our insecurities and knowledge but can also help people understand exactly what needs to be done. These questions become important in the motivation of all teams. Individuals need to be recognized, and personal motivation becomes important. The challenge is that we don't get all recognized and are not inspired the same way. Therefore, a Master Project Manager™ needs to have the ability to recognize and acknowledge people and use that as one of his or her motivating techniques.

Each one of these lessons is not an external leadership capability but an internal way that PMs can continue to improve their team dynamics and team processes thereby creating more dynamic and high performing teams. In fact, studies have shown that using this sort of internal techniques to create stronger, more cohesive teams actually builds a more powerful and effective team organization.

Therefore, if these simple techniques are applied consistently and on a regular basis, they can truly make a difference in how the team looks at the work that needs to be done as well as the way the project management field is viewed. A PM, through simple techniques that cost no money, can actually gain substantial increases in productivity as well as organizational benefits.

Using Vision to Inspire

The first of the eight lessons is that it is vitally important that the PM understands exactly what needs to be done and be able to communicate that. The challenge is that visualization is not usually perceived as something that can motivate. Instead, it may appear as a laundry list of things to do and, especially in the Information Technology (IT) industry, people are used to looking for bulleted lists. This is not necessarily the best way to envision a project.

A vision has to be something that can be felt and seen. One of the more valuable ways of doing this is to have a PM describe what it's like to be finished with the project. The PM should use envisioning techniques that allow you and the individuals to not only see it, feel it, but also to believe that it can happen, thereby creating a vision of success in the long run. This gives individuals as well as the PMs an intellectual understanding, as well as a kinesthetic understanding of what needs to be done. Therefore, when things get difficult, you already have the end in mind. These visions are important and need to be re-emphasized on a regular basis.

One of the great traps of this technique is that a PM will just adopt wholly whatever the vision statement of the organization is. Although embracing the vision of the specific statement is important, it is equally important to come up with an internalized vision for the organization. This gives a personal touch to the whole project. This vision can either be created by the PM or better yet, created by the entire project team. This creates more of an inclusive vision and thereby creates greater buy-in for the entire process. This is a step that can be time-consuming but can also keep the project team focused and motivated to achieve its self-defined goal.

Reworking Meetings

Most PMs, as well as team members, detest the endless project meetings. However, meetings are absolutely vital to communication by providing information. Regretfully, they are not the most effective way of optimizing team dynamics. Most meetings need to be looked at very carefully to make sure that you're utilizing your time wisely. One of the great wasters of time is an update meeting, where everyone sits around the room and rehashes exactly what they have been doing. If there are 15 people in the room, with everyone spending one or two minutes updating his or her status, most of the people aren't paying attention or are completely disengaged. The idea that there will be cross-fertilization of ideas is not really effective because most individuals do not have an interest in the process, owing to the fact that only one person is speaking at a time.

It is more effective to create a series of strategic meetings, and try and figure out new and inventive ways of doing updates and general information. This can be done several ways. For example, have status updates via email and have the PM ask questions about the process instead of having a meeting. The PM should create meetings that have more interest and greater dynamic range. In other words, meetings that everyone can engage in. There should always be meetings to talk about the risks and opportunities coming up in the next stage, phase, or tasks. There should also be opportunities to suggest new and inventive ways of doing things and meetings of celebration. Therefore, utilizing your meeting time more effectively and trying to make sure that everyone is engaged simultaneously, as opposed to serially, will gain tremendous amounts of not only time but also engagement.

It also can be useful to change the settings of your meeting. If you always have the meeting in the same room and everyone sits in the same place, creativity can be stifled. Instead, change the position of the room and where you sit on a regular basis. If you're in a meeting and people are starting to get stifled, it never hurts to take a health break, coffee break, or whatever so that people can get up and wander around and come back. It gives them a mental and physical break as well as changes the position of the meeting. By the same token, many organizations believe that standup meetings are one of the more useful ways of doing things. CNNTM has meeting rooms without any desks or chairs. These meeting rooms are designed for quick conversations, discussion, and figuring out what needs to be done. One does not have anywhere to put papers or a coffee cup. Therefore, meetings are forced to be short and concise owing to the fact that no one can truly get comfortable and spend a long time in the room. CNN finds this a very useful tactic and many other organizations have since adopted this process

Focusing Your Words

Recognizing how we use language and either intentionally or unintentionally set ourselves up can also be an eye-opening experience. Interestingly enough, we have a tendency to say “I” in tremendous amounts even though we do not recognize it. In fact, most team members will not recognize that you were saying “I” a lot either. As the PM, you should be aware that using “I” on a regular basis is more focused internally than it is externally.

This is not something you can turn off and turn on. It is something that you become used to doing. It is important to create this idea when you're talking about a team to always use the word “we.” In fact, people who use this will have a tendency to refer to themselves as we. One of the best examples of an individual who thinks more about her responsibility than herself is the Queen of England. She refers to herself in the third person all the time, constantly reminding herself that she is there to serve her subjects. This tradition has gone on for hundreds of years, emphasizing that the monarch is the supreme ruler of the country; the true focus should always be on the subjects not the self. This permeates one's entire life. It is said that Queen Elizabth refers to herself in the third person all the time, not just in public but also in private. This is second nature but sounds unusual and arcane to the rest of us. For a woman who is the richest woman in the world with one of the longest and most illustrious lineages, perhaps she has some lessons to teach us.

The words we use can sometimes be very useful but at other times can be detrimental. Therefore, trying to avoid the word “I” as well as singular pronouns, can be one of the ways that you show you are interested in working as a team. Avoiding words like “I” and replacing them with “we” will show the team over a period of time that you are truly interested in the process. This is a very subliminal effect. Therefore, do not expect this to happen overnight. What you'll see over a period of time is that team members recognize using “we” instead of “I” because they will start using “we,” too. Simply changing the way you speak gives you a powerful way to improve your team.

Tell Stories

This technique has been used ever since language was used. We sometimes have trouble understanding and remembering key concepts, especially if they are nebulous or esoteric. From the very beginning of history, we have used stories to teach. Fables, stories and myths are part of every culture's ethos and not only describe what things are important in that culture, but how people relate, act, and think toward each other. Taking that from lesson, it's appropriate to use those constructs within the project management environment. Stories help people understand the importance of specific ideas, especially if they have different cultures or a different ethos.

Our greatest teachers have always been those individuals who can help us understand the more complex issues by telling stories. The advantage of this process is that it delivers the message and gives the individual more context to be able to remember that message. Sometimes telling stories is easier than actually describing the requirements. Using a story to teach the cultural influences as well as what the expectations are can sometimes build a great deal more understanding than actually explaining the lesson.

Cultivate Influence instead of Power

Influence is not necessarily something that is sought after. On the other hand, power is finite and people try and steal from one another, while influence is something given away free-of-charge. The difference is that influence is a longer-lasting and more powerful tool than the use of power. In most cases, power is a short-lived section or ability whereas influence is much longer-lived and can be used and wielded much more delicately. As a PM, developing influence over a matrix organization can be much more effective in doing projects and in creating a process by which you can move up. Trying to accumulate power can be difficult, and depending on power struggles, could endanger your occupational path. Developing influence will always allow you to be in the meetings that are necessary.

The truth is that gaining influence in an organization takes time. This is a long-term goal not a short-term fix. In many organizations it may take several years to develop influence over the organization. This is done by helping the rest of the people in the organization and showing your concern for not only their working world but also their personal life. Whenever they have trouble, reach out and help them instead of making sure it's not part of your job. This takes time, energy, and effort but in the long run it creates a tremendous tool for getting work done and projects completed that have influence over the organization. There are many organizations whose senior managers started in the mailroom or sweeping the floors, and have worked their way up not only by their ability to get things done, but by their influence. We all know the history of assistants who have been there for a long while and have tremendous influence on the organization. Getting people like this on our side is much more useful than actually getting the masses they support. Recognizing that the influence of these influencers is an important step in trying to build some yourself.

Ask Better Questions

Some of our greatest teachers, such as Socrates, spent most of their time asking questions to help individuals lead themselves to the answers. Instead of lecturing team members and telling them what they should do, use the Socratic method. The Socratic method helps participants understand what needs to be done and find answers by asking a series of specific questions and giving the participant an opportunity to see the logic in the process. It's a much more team friendly and an inclusive manner than most ways of managing organizations. The team will gradually recognize this process and see that you're interested in spending the time to ask the questions instead of just telling them what needs to be done.

Instead of jumping right to the answer, go back to the root assumptions of the process and ask questions about that root assumption. The issue is sometimes a flaw in the argument. Then step through a logical progression from that root assumption to the actual answer. Sometimes you will find that by the time you get to that final answer, an agreement will be reached or you and your team will, at least, be in a position to talk about your differences in a calm, logical fashion as opposed to getting egos and reputations in the way.

These questions can be:

  • What brings you to that conclusion?
  • Can you give me some examples of where that would come into play?
  • Why do you believe that?
  • What experience have you had to make you think that's true?
  • Can you tell me more about that/say more about that?
  • Can you come up with two alternate ways to solve that problem?
  • What is the root cause of this problem?
  • Who else has experience with this problem?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you do?

Motivation is Personal & the Power of Acknowledgement

These final two points work hand-in-hand. As a PM, we seldom have the ability to provide financial or remunerative rewards for work done well. But motivation and acknowledgement are two very powerful tools we can use that do not necessarily cost a lot.

Acknowledgement includes recognizing individuals, in front of the whole organization, who are doing good work, and continue to promote the good, while not promoting the bad. It is important, of course, to make sure that the work is still getting done on time, on budget, within scale, and within scope. But it is equally important to celebrate successes in public and deal with a lack of success in private.

This becomes more and more important the larger a group grows. Continuing to re-emphasize the positive and recognizing individuals, in a way they feel comfortable, becomes very important for most PM. It is important to recognize that PMs are not the only type of people on the team. Some people really enjoy the limelight and want to be up in front and be applauded by the entire group. There are other people who would be uncomfortable and would be de-motivated if you said that you wanted to bring them up in front of people. It is more important to have a small, quiet conversation in a private setting with these individuals and tell them what they've done and that you appreciate them. Quiet recognition will be much more motivating for these individuals. As a PM, it is important not only to acknowledge people but also to acknowledge them in a way in which they are comfortable. Know the difference because not all of your team members will be motivated the same way.

In Closing

None of these eight lessons is revolutionary. In fact, most of the time, these eight lessons are things that we know about but do not necessarily follow on a regular basis. Continuing to emphasize the vision of a project is something we all know we should do but probably do not spend time on. We must remember to create a vision, possibly by telling stories and cultivating influence using those stories. We should create specific meetings. Instead, we try and group those meetings to save time, and then try and cut conversation to a minimum. Conversation should be encouraged by asking better and smarter questions. This will allow us to make sure we are getting the most out of what we need to do. And finally, recognition and motivation are important but do not necessarily require financial remuneration.

We can actually find many ways of quietly as well as publicly acknowledging our good workers as well as motivating them through various incentive programs that we can create. These do not necessarily have to be financial. They could include being able to have lunch with the senior manager or encouraging them to have lunch with a special loved one. In some cases, these opportunities may be more important than recognition.

In these trying times, we need to be more creative and flexible in the way that we think about motivation as well as the rest of our techniques. By focusing on these techniques and continuing to provide good, strong leadership while dealing with the fundamentals, will allow PMs to improve their skills and give them opportunities to excel even in these trying times.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, R. Camper Bull
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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