If only I'd known
PHOTO BY JASPER JAMES / OFFSET.COM
Over their careers, seasoned project practitioners gain hard-won insight. Now they’re passing it on. We asked eight experienced project practitioners, “When you were starting out, what do you wish you had known?”
BY JAKE MALOOLEY
Out of Scope Doesn’t Mean Out of Mind.
Samer Kabbara, PMP, project manager, Davidson Consulting, Paris, France, has been a practitioner for seven years.
“On my first couple projects, I spent a considerable amount of time defining scope statement and acceptance criteria without paying attention to project exclusions. Over time I realized that, as important as it is to identify what is in the project, project managers should also ensure that all items not within the project boundaries—those things that may otherwise cause confusion by not being explicitly stated—are described.
Once, when I was working on a software integration project for a telecom operator, the acceptance criterion was stable performance without any regression with regard to standard key performance indicators. The project team and I believed there was no need for drive testing [measuring the capacity, coverage and overall performance of a network]. During the execution phase, the customer asked for drive test results, which we didn’t have. Failing to list this item as ‘out of scope’ caused conflict. We ended up running these tests and incurring unforeseen costs.
Things that seem out of scope for the project manager may not be for the customer or end users. If it is not listed and shared at an early stage of the project, it might cost the project manager a lot of trouble during project execution, by having to deal either with change management or with unsatisfied end users or customers. I had to learn this on my own, but I wish someone had told me to pay more attention to scope exclusions. They help you avoid difficult times and ensure a stakeholder’s satisfaction.”
Jan Mandrup, PMI-RMP, PMP, senior certified project manager, IBM Asia Pacific, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Sydney, Australia, has been a practitioner for 13 years.
Things Can Go Wrong—and Will.
“My younger self would have definitely benefited from putting more effort into risk management. When starting an exciting project, it can be difficult to focus on all the things that could go wrong when you’re wanting everything to go right. Being overconfident that nothing bad will happen can make you suffer later.
On the flip side, having a risk register ready can help you focus on keeping the project moving in the face of adversity, rather than difficulties forcing you into reactive mode. I wish I had had a risk register at the ready on some of my first jobs, as I remember spending lots of energy and tears saving some of those projects from the sudden absence of team members. It was effort and emotion that could have been better spent.”
“When starting an exciting project, it can be difficult to focus on all the things that could go wrong when you’re wanting everything to go right. Being overconfident that nothing bad will happen can make you suffer later.”
—Jan Mandrup, PMI-RMP, PMP
Speak a Common Language. Better Yet, Write It Down.
John Colburn, PMP, senior project manager of technology and central infrastructure, Morningstar Inc., Chicago, Illinois, USA, has been a practitioner for five years.
“When starting out as a project manager, I wish I had had a better appreciation for the seemingly mundane foundational items when initiating a project. Their value is not immediate, but they can really save and stabilize a project in full swing. For instance, the importance of a glossary to capture the verbiage and agreed definitions used throughout the life cycle should not be underestimated. A glossary documents a common understanding, creates a reference point and establishes a level of accountability as tasks and milestones are created, coordinated and reported. Stakeholders will often give you different definitions at different times. When definitions are assumed, it increases the risk of a misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations.”
If You Can’t Communicate, You Can’t Manage.
Simonas Galarreta, PMP, service manager, Global Point Chile, Santiago, Chile, has been a practitioner for nearly 17 years.
“When I started out nearly 17 years ago, I wish I would’ve known that communication is the key player on any project. You must keep every project participant informed of what’s going on and where you are on the project plan. How you communicate is more important than almost any relevant project indicators. Yes, it’s important to raise and track risks—very important indeed. But if you don’t know how to communicate those risks appropriately, it’s very likely your project could end up stalled or in crisis. Learning precisely how to deal with every level of an organization, from the programmer to the C-suite, is something that studying in theory only helps you with so much. Mastering it in the real world is something different.
Don’t be frustrated by early setbacks; mastery comes with practice. You must learn to trust people and mentor them to see every project as a team goal. The more involvement your team members—meaning the outsourcing company, the customer, the IT people, every-one—have on the project from the beginning, the more success you’ll see. No individual effort, no matter how great, can make up for a group that is not working as a team.”
Managing Teams Is Partly Science. It’s Mostly Art.
Andy Barnitz, PMP, PMO leader—talent acquisition, Allstate, Chicago, Illinois, USA, has been a practitioner for more than 15 years.
“A critical piece of wisdom I wish I had known early on in my project management career is the 80/20 rule. What that means when managing projects is that 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes.
But the rule also applies in another way: 80 percent of project leadership is art, and the remainder is science. The 20 percent recognizes the critical need to effectively plan the project, manage tasks, and ensure you are meeting the time, scope and funding requirements of the project. The art in project management is the ability to effectively manage people—the soft side of the project. That includes creating a cohesive project team, managing emotion, and ensuring that you fully understand and address the voice of the customer.
The greatest setback a project can have isn’t resource or funding constraints, unrealistic deadlines or poor project sponsorship; it is the project manager’s inability to effectively understand and manage the team. Within a self-directed project team environment, team members feel empowered to make decisions as well as to resolve conflicts and problem-solve. The benefits of a project team resolving its own challenges are far more impactful. Once project team members understand the importance of the project, a sense of shared responsibility and cohesion begins to form. The team will inherently rely on this sense of unified purpose to weather a project’s successes and failures.”
“The greatest setback a project can have isn’t resource or funding constraints, unrealistic deadlines or poor project sponsorship; it is the project manager’s inability to effectively understand and manage the team.”
—Andy Barnitz, PMP
Tathagat Varma, PMP, VP of strategic process innovations and human resources, 7 Innovation Labs, Bengaluru, India, has been a practitioner for 17 years.
People Trump Process.
“Early on in my career, I over-relied on process capability to keep projects on track, rather than working directly with the individuals in my teams to accomplish much better results. I wish I had known then that the best, most trusted teams tend to self-organize—often not because of a great process imposed on them but despite it. Processes are only as good as the people practicing them. If you hire collaborative people, the manager should find a way to respect organic team dynamics and reduce the process red tape so that trust replaces contract as the primary way to accomplish tasks.
Too often, managers see their title as the ultimate acknowledgement of professional expertise, a view that could lead to complacency, arrogance and indifference to the fact that a manager is primarily a figure who exists to serve the team—not the other way around. To that end, a manager must practice servant leadership to create efficiencies for the team so that the team can focus on its core objectives and become a high-performing unit.”
Diego Mota, PMP, Latin American head of solution and transformation, Atos International, São Paulo, Brazil, has been a practitioner for 15 years.
It’s Not Just What You Say. It’s How You Say It.
“When studying project management, we learn the important technical aspects of the job—but there is little notion about how those are practically applied in the daily issues that arise in the life cycle of a project. That comes with experience, as does effective communication, which is always the crucial point, the fulcrum of any project. The ability to deliver the correct information to the proper destination in a timely manner is a huge challenge in itself.
Throughout your project management career, you will need to constantly sharpen your communication skills in order to succeed. That is especially true because managing projects means managing changes that impact different stakeholders, who bring with them their own interests and conflicts, both professional and personal.”
“Throughout your project management career, you will need to constantly sharpen your communication skills in order to succeed.”
—Diego Mota, PMP
Roberto L.C. Gattoni, PMP, corporate PMO supervisor, Fiat/Chrysler Latin America, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, has been a project manager for 17 years.
They’re Called Stakeholders for a Reason.
“When I was starting out, I wish I had known that stakeholder management is crucial, and the project manager should be dedicated to it. From the very beginning of any project, be aware of and take note of the stakeholders’ requirements, expectations, impressions, perceptions—and even those pesky unknown demands. These factors change in intensity constantly along the project life cycle. The continuous challenge for you as a proactive project manager is to know how to listen to the winds, so to speak—to notice breaking expectations, to detect the small problems that can quickly turn into crises.
Be ready also to manage influential and powerful personalities that may have been left out of the agreements made during the project. In my experience, even if the project manager is an expert in communication management, it’s not enough to entirely avoid setbacks. You just have to realize stakeholders are human, with their own opinions, expectations and concerns.”
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