A match made in heaven
Aita Salasoo, PhD, PMP, PgMP, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA
BY LILLIAN CUNNiNGHAM PORTRAITS BY CHRiSTOPHER LANE
Few project practitioners would fancy themselves as Cupids. Yet matchmaking isn't an art limited to paramours. In business, matching a project to the right project manager requires a similar complex ability to make connections.
“Without a doubt, resource management is the hardest task project-focused organizations deal with,” says Tom Oxford, PMP, PMO leader, Dell Services, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Los Angeles, California, USA. “Having the right people available for the right projects at the right time is a constant juggling act.”
Whether that juggling is done within the PMO or by a portfolio manager or program manager, here are three features to consider in making a compatible match: the project's requirements, the managers' skills and experience, and the current and future workload.
SIZE UP THE PROJECT
Careful matchmaking should start with a thorough inventory of the project's requirements. Before jumping into the talent assessment, Aita Salasoo, PhD, PMP, PgMP, senior program director, advanced solutions group, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA, recommends focusing on attributes of the project—beyond its budget, schedule and scope. Tick through categories like team building, client-facing skills and risk mitigation—and evaluate all of them through the lens of the experience level the project necessitates.
“Without a doubt, resource management is the hardest task project-focused organizations deal with.”
—Tom Oxford, PMP, Dell Services, Los Angeles, California, USA
Will the project require a lot of client interaction? Will the team be virtual, requiring a particularly strong communicator with savvy emotional intelligence? Is this an ambiguous project that might best be tackled by a decisive leader with similar experience?
Muhammad Chao, PMP, puts a premium on working closely with the project owner from the very beginning to have a better sense of the project than how it's described on paper.
“It's awfully hard to serve as a good portfolio manager without working directly with the client,” says Mr. Chao, former project portfolio manager, IBM Australia, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Melbourne, Australia. He recommends taking the time to understand the project sponsor's preferences in detail—not only whom the sponsor prefers, but why—before assigning a project. It will help inform a stronger match, he says, and also help smooth any friction the project may encounter down the road.
“It might be hard to create a common model that captures all the nuanced elements of matching along with the thoughtfulness of a good leader's insights.”
—Muhammad Chao, PMP, formerly of IBM Australia, Melbourne, Australia
KNOW THE TALENT
While most managers agree that good matchmaking requires a mix of qualitative and quantitative approaches, they differ on how much weight to lend to each. For example, is it wise to rely on good judgment and personal knowledge of various project managers' strengths and weaknesses? Or is it better to build a database of key performance indicators and let an algorithm take the guesswork out of pairing the talent to the task?
Many smaller companies, and those with fewer project managers, rely chiefly on the institutional and personnel knowledge of their leadership teams to make the right match from project to project. However, they aren't the only ones to employ this approach.
IBM Australia employed spreadsheets and websites listing the experiences and strengths of its project managers to help inform the matching process. But that doesn't mean programs could do all the work of matching project to person. “It might be hard to create a common model that captures all the nuanced elements of matching along with the thoughtfulness of a good leader's insights,” Mr. Chao says.
Instead, he and key stakeholders relied on their collective judgment, which is based on experience, the nature of the work, the client and the team.
In addition to understanding his project managers' operational skills, Mr. Chao paid close attention to their communication strengths and what he calls their “cultural attunement.” On one project in a previous job, for example, he had a dogged team member who was eager to escalate requests because the people she was working with in another country weren't responding quickly enough. She didn't realize, however, that escalation was considered offensive and aggressive in that culture. Such rapid escalation will break long-term cohesion and doesn't necessarily deliver short-term results, Mr. Chao says.
Tick through categories like team building, client-facing skills and risk mitigation—and evaluate all of them through the lens of the experience level the project necessitates.
—Aita Salasoo, PhD, PMP, PgMP
While many senior leaders and portfolio managers rely on their collective judgments, many companies find that art can be improved by injecting a bit of science into the mix.
The project manager database stores the matchmaking insight in the institution rather than in individuals.
—Sameer Khanna, PMP, Wipro Technologies, Bangkok, Thailand
In fact, some organizations have built custom programs to make matchmaking as close to an exact science as possible. Sameer Khanna, PMP, delivery manager, Wipro Technologies, Bangkok, Thailand, maintains a massive database of every project manager in the company. The entries update regularly (based on resource movement like project completion) and consist of each manager's primary strength, secondary strength, certifications and experience level.
The searchable database is accessed through a central resource portal. Every time a new project emerges, the portfolio manager enters the qualifications needed and then receives a list of project managers who fit that particular request. While humans make the ultimate selection, the idea is to have an algorithm do as much of the work as possible in identifying and narrowing the options.
A primary purpose of this approach is to combine accuracy with rapid response in firms with a large pool of project managers. But there's an additional asset, Mr. Khanna says: It stores the matchmaking insight in the institution rather than in individuals, so even if a leader moves up or moves on, the ability to make smart pairings doesn't suffer.
Some organizations that have long relied on human judgment are starting to add a layer of analytics to their matchmaking process.
Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA built a straightforward matrix tool to break down a project manager's skill set. “It's an offshoot of something we were doing in the engineering group,” says Bryan Stewart, PMI-ACP, PMP, program manager. “We're mostly using it as an HR tool to make sure we're developing people in the right area.”
The tool consists of two data spreadsheets. The first one captures each person's body of knowledge in project management, within the categories of scope management, time management, cost management and risk management. For each category, project managers are ranked at four potential levels of expertise: introductory, competent, leadership and mastery. The second spreadsheet captures the project manager's interpersonal skills in categories such as leadership, team building and negotiation.
While the tool provides a consistent framework for assessing people's skill sets, the more important factor still is “knowing the person and the project,” Mr. Stewart says.
Other companies have taken a similarly mixed approach. Cognizant Technology Solutions developed a project management scorecard to capture and sort project managers' skills at a glance, says Ms. Salasoo. The robust scorecard captures information on 21 items and divides them into two main pillars: experience (certifications, largest project managed, etc.) and competency (client relationships, compliance with standards, etc.).
“It's important that these sorts of tools be customizable.”
—Aita Salasoo, PhD, PMP, PgMP
“It's important that these sorts of tools be customizable,” Ms. Salasoo says. She notes that offshore project managers, for example, would need to be measured along a different set of soft skills. “We were looking at what made people successful in each of our situations.”
Although they will talk through group results with team members, only senior project leaders can open individual scorecard files—they are considered as sensitive as performance reviews.
Ms. Salasoo says she wouldn't recommend a database like this for teams with fewer than 20 project managers. She does, however, recommend going through the exercise of creating a sample scorecard of the skill sets and competencies a team finds most valuable. “It could be a good thing to glance at and remind yourself what questions to ask when interviewing for project managers.”
Making the most of a subpar match
What is the best course if, partway through the assigned project, a manager's skill set doesn't quite line up with the project at hand? Muhammad Chao, PMP, former project portfolio manager at IBM Australia, in Melbourne, Australia, shares four options to try:
Help the project manager see the project through to completion.
This is the preferred option—so before making any drastic moves, first provide coaching to help the project manager navigate the difficulties. The person who hired the project manager can intervene directly, or assign a program manager or a more seasoned project manager to deliver the coaching.
Look for synergies with other projects.
A second option is to identify where other project teams can assist with the troubled project, possibly taking on some elements of the project.
Review for communication issues.
Many troubled projects have elements of communication that could be improved. Helping the project manager overcome these is often a good immediate fix, as well as effective long-term coaching. But, says Mr. Chao, “It does take a lot of effort and very strong trust of the project manager having the difficulties.”
“Adding resources to a project that's already late often makes it even more late,” says Mr. Chao, paraphrasing Frederick Brooks, author of Mythical Man-Month, “but sometimes we have to do it.” Some troubled projects have underlying resourcing issues either with the project manager or team members, and will continue to suffer if they aren't corrected.
A talent scorecard won't only help pair projects with project managers—it can also identify and address skills gaps and carefully track the talent pool's strengths.
Aita Salasoo, PhD, PMP, PgMP, senior program director, advanced solutions group, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA, walks through the basics.
BALANCE THE WORKLOADS
Even after such careful assessment, workload limitations can put a halt to what might be the perfect match.
“You might have one of two problems,” Ms. Salasoo says. “You've only got junior people available and you've got work coming in that's too challenging for them, or you've got the opposite problem.”
“A little bit of mismatch, when managed well, can be a good thing. It stretches the individual, broadens the experience base, rejuvenates the team and gives me more flexibility in matching people up the next time around.”
—Muhammad Chao, PMP
While not always that stark, the challenge of distributing projects across a number of project managers can be even more difficult than finding the right match for any given project. The tendency is to want to give everything to your star performers, but that would leave them overworked and the rest of your team underused. To sidestep this scenario, several program and portfolio managers say they continually find ways to elevate the skill sets of their weakest members. Ms. Salasoo, as an example, looks across scorecards for common areas of needed growth among her project managers, and then provides group training.
Mr. Khanna, of Wipro Technologies, says that on larger projects, they staff “a mix of rookies plus experienced people” to mitigate risk while improving the expertise of their talent pool. Similarly, Mr. Chao says that at IBM Australia, he engaged more experienced project managers and program managers during the hiring process and as mentors to help guide new project managers. “Organizing the portfolio into programs and appointing proven program managers to take charge of all projects within the program puts elasticity into the organization,” Mr. Chao says.
Some leaders get even more proactive. In order to ensure the best project managers take on the hardest and most important projects, they identify months in advance when their star performers will have the most capacity. Then they notify the internal stakeholders who tend to have the highest-risk projects about the stars' upcoming availability. In this way, leaders can time the project to the project manager's schedule, rather than wait to react until after the project is announced. While it is not always possible to coordinate in this way, it does provide a unique opportunity to make a most favorable match.
Another method, which Mr. Chao witnessed in a previous job, is to establish “stage gates” that are part of the formal project delivery framework. These allow senior project managers to “reassign project managers at certain points, making it easier to adjust load level and better utilize skill sets.” However, he said it's generally best to let each project manager see a project through its full life cycle.
A final piece of advice from Mr. Chao is to look at workload distribution not as a set of trade-offs but as a way to build the overall fitness of a project team. “A little bit of mismatch, when managed well, can be a good thing,” he says. “It stretches the individual, broadens the experience base, rejuvenates the team and gives me more flexibility in matching people up the next time around.” PM
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