Job Skills—Fast-Paced Problem Solving

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified™ with PMI, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career. 

For an easy way to stay up to date on Projectified™ with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play music or PMI.org/podcast.

Stephen W. Maye

Hello. I’m Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified™ with PMI. I’m here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and in this episode we’re looking at what it takes to solve problems in a fast-paced project environment.  

A lot goes into successful problem-solving, especially when you’re managing large-scale or complex projects. But when work is moving at breakneck speeds, it really amps up the pressure to find quick fixes that’ll keep things moving forward. 

Tegan Jones

Yeah, I just saw a report from Deloitte that said one of the biggest differences that comes with working in the digital world is that business just moves at a much faster pace. 

And while disruption is still a very real issue, we’re heading into what some are calling the “post-digital era.” In this sense, “post-digital” doesn’t mean the end of digital, but rather that the term “digital” is just losing its relevance. And that’s basically because every organization will soon be a digital organization. 

Stephen W. Maye 

Yeah, that’s really the reality in 2019. Even organizations in the most traditional sectors—so think banking, insurance, healthcare—they’ve accepted that the future is digital. And they’ve got to work faster in this environment.

Tegan Jones 

The Deloitte survey also found that digitally mature organizations are better at developing leaders, distributing decision making and responding to market shifts. And these are, of course, factors that all help facilitate problem-solving in the face of uncertainty and rapid change.

Stephen W. Maye 

It’s definitely easier for digital organizations to give project teams the flexibility they need to work faster. 

That’s one of the things I heard from Chandra Shekar, who’s the general manager of IT for Schneider Electric in Bengaluru, India. I recently spoke to him about how organizations can rethink the way project teams work to help them address issues more efficiently. That’s coming up a little later in the episode.

Tegan Jones

We’re also going to discuss how cutting-edge technology can help teams speed up the problem-solving process. Roman Baranovsky, a services quality assurance lead for Microsoft, says artificial intelligence can help teams identify and deal with low-risk issues on a daily basis. We’ll learn how he delegates decisions to both people and machines in just a few minutes.

Stephen W. Maye 

But first, we’re going to hear from Christine Lee, associate director of project management at S&P Global in London. She has some interesting insights on how to solve problems quickly while working within a strict regulatory framework. Let’s hear from her now.

[musical transition]
Christine Lee

The pace of projects in my space is really speeding up.

The expectation is to deliver faster, to deliver more in a shorter time span. Now it’s not just the information technology sector, it’s across all sectors. 

If we want to respond to problems quickly in a highly regulated environment, then the best approach is to involve the relevant regulatory compliance stakeholders from the very beginning. So if we want to move faster, we can say that we do a technical proof of concept. And in the meantime, we engage with the relevant compliance team, legal team, so that we don’t do things in sequence and we shorten the delivery time, but we still cover everything.

It’s common that the team will hit a wall, like there will be a blocker that’s hard to remove. When we are in this situation, usually what I do is first to calm the team down because it’s hard for people to be creative when they are stressed or frustrated. Then to encourage them to come up with a creative solution, the key is to let them know the boundary. And what I mean by that is that, because what I’ve found before, it’s usually not because people are not creative enough. Quite often they don’t take any action because they don’t know whether they could do it or not, whether they are allowed or not. You always help to draw the boundary and say, hey, this is the cost constraint, this is the time constraint. For example, this is the policies or the rules that we need to adhere to. So let them know the boundary and then give them the freedom to try and then the freedom to fail.

I find it useful to pause and take a step back because my experience tells me that we live in a changing environment; we live in a changing world. So while our project is going on, there are other things happen around us.

So just to give an example, in one of my projects, the team tried to find out the right way to ingest data into our environment. They couldn’t find a perfect way because if we go with a flat file there are constraints; if we want to use API there are constraints, so nothing will fulfill our requirements. However, recently I just talked to my colleagues in other businesses, and there’s a project going on in their space, and that project might actually solve my problem. So with what they tried to achieve in that project, I might not need to ingest data anymore. I might be able to just correlate data in their environment. 

I think there are so many different ways a person can solve a problem. And there’s no right or wrong way, like many different ways might work. Usually we don’t need to find the perfect solution. We need to find the most appropriate solution based on the constraints, the environment. So if we only have one week to solve a problem, our approach might be different compared to when we have one month to solve a problem. So be flexible and use what’s appropriate.

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye 

Even when you’re working in a really constrained environment, creativity is such an important part of problem-solving. And I think Christine was right when she said that if you empower team members to find the solution that works best for them, you might be surprised by the creative ideas they come up with. 

Tegan Jones 

That kind of empowerment also helps people continually improve their problem-solving skills. And according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, critical thinking, creativity and complex problem-solving are going to be increasingly important skills for organizations to develop over the next few years. 

Stephen W. Maye  

Risk management is one area where these skills really come into play. You need to be able to think critically to distinguish high-risk problems from low-risk problems—and make sure you’re assigning the right resources to handle each issue. This is something our next guest knows a lot about. 

Roman Baranovsky is the Moscow-based services quality assurance lead for Microsoft’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region. And we’re about to learn how he resolves issues before they push his projects off track. Let’s go to that now.

[musical transition]
Tegan Jones 

Problem-solving and decision making go hand in hand. How quickly an issue can be addressed often depends on how fast a decision can be made. That’s why Roman Baranovsky focuses on delegating decisions and reducing bottlenecks wherever he can—and sometimes that means relying on robots. 

Roman Baranovsky

We see that our customers consistently want us to be faster, to be more agile. And the customers want to see the outcome of the project investment much sooner.

In Microsoft, we’re trying to automate many of the decisions, to actually using the artificial intelligence. For example, some of the contracts and decisions are basically managed by the tool, and the tool defines what level of approval you need to have on this specific deal and basically who is the right person to do it. So it helps to take lots of, I would say, unnecessary decisions out of the equation and allow people to be more efficient.

Tegan Jones 

But even the best AI can’t replace a personal touch. When a complex problem emerges, leaders must often lean on their people skills in order to root out its true cause.

Roman Baranovsky 

I’ve been into a number of situations where just everyone was blaming everyone else for the problems, and, well, I would say quick fix won’t work in the case like this.

And basically, sometimes you need to go into details and try to understand for yourself, talking to different stakeholders and just looking into some of the artifacts of the project produced and just trying to understand what the real situation is. 

Tegan Jones 

Roman recently faced this type of roadblock on a big ERP implementation for an important client.

Roman Baranovsky 

Well, whatever you can imagine can go wrong with the project was applicable to this project. It was like bright red, delayed, over budget, unhappy team and the customer actually threatening to terminate. So just all the problems you can think of.

Tegan Jones 

To get the project back on track, Roman engaged executive sponsors, fixed governance processes and reassigned talent. He also identified scope gaps and timeline issues that he addressed with the client. These changes helped the team stabilize the project—and avoid similar issues in the future. 

Roman Baranovsky 

We should attack root causes rather than just trying to fix things on the surface. 

So the important part is probably just to pay attention to what is happening and, well, really do not make lots of assumptions about the situation. Always remember that we are dealing with people and their expectations, and generally that’s what creates some of the problems. So if you see something is not working, just see whose expectations you are violating and how to fix them. 

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye  

Roman made a great point about seeking out the root cause of a problem. When there’s so much going on, it can be tempting to just respond to one issue at a time. But in reality, and often below the surface, they’re actually connected.

Tegan Jones 

That’s true. And if you go for a quick fix without figuring out what’s really going on, it probably won’t be too long before you find yourself dealing with a similar issue.

Stephen W. Maye

Repeat problems are really common, especially at large organizations where project teams are working all over the world. And that’s where knowledge sharing can be a big help. That’s one of the themes that came up in my conversation with Chandra Shekar, who is the general manager of IT for Schneider Electric in Bengaluru, India. He says connecting teams to past lessons learned is one of the best ways to speed up the pace of project work.

Tegan Jones 

You definitely don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to. So let’s hear what he had to say.

[musical transition]
Stephen W. Maye 

Chandra, one of the first things I want to talk about is really the pace of project work, and it has picked up significantly across really so many sectors. How is this trend playing out in your work?

Chandra Shekar

Basically, the time to market is shrinking, and the release to production, which is the release cycles, are being shortened, and the pace of the project work has tremendously increased. Some of the few things which traditionally we used to do in terms of crashing and fast-tracking is no more relevant into this real world.

The stakeholders relentlessly want to achieve their business objectives and benefits within a short period of time, cost and then create quality.

One of the huge transformation initiatives in our organization, which we have taken for the last one or two years, is moving away from the traditional way of working to agile way of working. Some of the difficulties or the challenges currently we are facing is the structural change or the agile mindset being built in silos. That’s the biggest challenge. 

The other thing which we have also done to address this problem is to make a repository of reusable components. Which means that people can use that for their implementations, which increases the efficiency of the project. The third element which we have tried doing is standardization across departments and functions to make sure that the processes are standardized and then it is well understood by everyone.

Stephen W. Maye 

So when you think about working in this kind of a fast-paced environment, how do you approach problem-solving differently? Is that different than you would approach it, say, in an environment that doesn’t require working at the kind of pace you just described?

Chandra Shekar 

What is really needed on the ground is to have certain key inputs on elements upfront, which really helps in quickly resolving problems in the fast-paced environment. The first one to talk about is about the information or the data. You need to have an access to the data very quickly.

You have a lot of knowledge-based artifacts like your best practices, lessons learned, reusable assets. To have a central repository of the information—I have seen in practical world many of the times when the project team or the project manager faces a problem at that moment of time, they try and then they struggle to find out the information needed to quickly resolve the issues. So this is my first point which I would like to bring out is to have the information data very handy as part of creating a centralized repository and then make sure you are aware of those. The second thing which I want to talk about in a fast-paced environment is to know the dependencies. Know the dependencies of your project with respect to resources, with respect to tools, processes and then dependencies on stakeholders and then certain support functions. If you are not aware of these dependencies, you will not be able to really quickly resolve a problem or come to end solutions.

Stephen W. Maye 

What’s the best way to avoid problems? When you are in a fast-moving environment, obviously it’s important to be able to recognize and attack and solve those problems quickly, but there’s got to be a great value in being able to avoid them as well. So what tips might you have for managing unknowns and mitigating risks so that we actually avoid some of the problems that can be avoided in a fast-moving environment?

Chandra Shekar 

The first thing is to have effective communication. Have clarity in your communication, transparency in your communication, and then remove ambiguity as much as possible. You can always over communicate, but never under communicate. Now, having an effective communication throughout the life cycle of the project really helps in avoiding a lot of issues or a lot of problems. That’s the first rule, and then the second one is to establish a good governance. So having really good review mechanisms in place and then have clear roles and responsibilities defined; have a good measurement system in place. 

One of the best things to do is to have a mindset of evaluating risk on a continuous basis, and in many of the cases we have seen there are certain assumptions, constraints, dependencies which has been already drafted at the initiation of the project but however has not been relooked as we are in the execution mode. So it is always better to go back and then evaluate those assumptions, constraints and dependencies within the project, internal or external to the project, which also helps in avoiding a lot of problems as we execute the project.

Build a culture of agility, continuous learning and improvement. Now, it has to be a mindset and a culture which basically helps you not only for the stakeholders, project manager, all the project team, it is also external, can be a customer, end user. So build that culture of agility and then continuous learning, which also avoids a lot of problems as we move towards the execution of the project. Lastly is the relationship with the stakeholders. Now, when I say relationship, it is not a professional relationship. I would say that it’s beyond professional relationship. It’s basically that it will really help you to preempt and then act on certain stakeholder engagement elements, and then it’s also, there are many cases we have seen the stakeholders come to rescue the project when it is needed or when you are in a challenging situation. 

Stephen W. Maye 

I’m interested in your take on the mindset that can allow teams to continue to progress well and solve solutions well and to be creative. So how do you inspire a team to come up with creative solutions when they are hitting major barriers, or as we might say sometimes, hitting the wall? How do you inspire them to continue to come up with creative solutions?

Chandra Shekar 

So, one of the things which I believe in is that not every solution needs to be creative. So there are solutions available within the knowledge of the people and the organization, so what I basically keep telling many of my project managers and program managers is, there’s enormous experience and knowledge within the people and organization. Go and tap it and then find out, take inputs from the people and the experiences which people have.

The second important thing is allow people to explore ideas in their own means and strengths, because I believe that people have intrinsic intelligence to find out solutions to their problems. Once you give an environment and avenue for them to explore ideas for themselves, they come up with a lot of creative ideas and then solutions. Keep motivating people to fail fast and then evaluate so that they can come back and then look at other alternate options and then look at other solutions. So the mindset of having the culture which you build around your organization in terms of failing fast and then evaluating the next-best solutions is something which will also help. And then from a soft skill perspective, make sure that every resource is resilient and train the resources to be for resilience, which really helps them to be creative in identifying the solutions for the problems. 

Stephen W. Maye 

What’s the one piece of advice that you would offer another leader who is struggling with persistent problems on their project or program? What’s that highest-priority one piece of advice?

Chandra Shekar 

Build a culture of three E’s. The first E is education. So when I say education, enable continuous learning. The continuous learning can be through certification, short-term programs, participating in industry forums and events. So that’s the first E. The second E is about the exposure: Provide sufficient opportunities for the resources to get exposed to a wide variety of scenarios, situations, challenges, work types, knowledge areas, which also enables them to continuously learn through exposure. The third E is about experience, which talks about equipping the project managers and the project team with the right tools, techniques, skills. Provide sufficient freedom, flexibility and then space for them to think and have experiential learning. So I think if you follow having or building this culture of the three E’s, I think it would be a great continuous learning journey and then really helps in the successful executing of projects and programs. I think many of the problems can be addressed with having the education, exposure and experience on a continuous basis.

Stephen W. Maye 

So execute on the three E’s—education, exposure and experience. And with that, Chandra Shekar, general manager IT for Schneider Electric in Bengaluru, India, has the last word. Chandra, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Chandra Shekar 

Thank you, Stephen. It was a pleasure talking to you too.

Narrator

Thank you for listening to Projectified™ with PMI. If you liked this episode, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. We’d love your feedback, so please leave a rating or review.