Blog Archive

  • An Alternative Approach to Dealing with the Inevitable Team Conflict (12/13/2018) by Nick Darlington

    “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”—Babe Ruth 



    Among the many critical project success factors—detailed plans, accurate estimates, and clear communication—a strong, unified team is arguably one of the most important. Without it, conflict prevails that—if left unchecked—can derail your projects.

    Understanding the importance of a unified team, today project leaders focus heavily on building the right teams—ones consisting of members who not only have strong complementary skills but also work well with others. But, even among the strongest of teams, conflict is inevitable.

    The Inevitability of Conflict

    Conflict is part of being a human. Strong personalities do often clash; people come from different backgrounds and have different values. Combine these personality nuances and other differences together, and you have the perfect recipe for success—and conflict.

    When conflict inevitably occurs, how do you deal with it?

    Dealing with Conflict: Do You Really Need a Plan?

    In a perfect world, every conflict would be the same and easy to deal with. People would react the same to every situation and even feel the same. You’d know all the variables, have one plan, and understand exactly what to do. Each and every time.

    However, human emotion is a variable that’s hard to control. You cannot predict with certainty how people will feel or even react, making it even harder to determine how they’ll work together.

    With conflict potentially being so varied and unique, is it really worth having a plan to manage it?

    Sure, you could create “X” number of steps you follow to deal with it and adapt those to every situation, starting with the most obvious: Identifying the cause of the conflict.

    From there, you could call a meeting for those involved and encourage them to listen to one another’s problems in the hopes they find a compromise. Even then there are no guarantees, and you’ll likely have to find a mediator.

    The above is certainly a viable approach that many project leaders use, but I’d like to propose a different one.

    An Alternative Approach to Handling Conflict: Don’t Manage It

    Two years ago, while building my business, I was part of an accountability group with three other people. We met weekly to not only hold each other accountable to our goals but also to share ideas.

    Seeing as we would spend much time together and maybe even jointly work on future projects, my friend suggested we take personality tests to understand our behaviors and analyze team dynamics.

    She introduced us to Shadowmatch, an online behavioral mapping system used by companies, coaches, psychometrists, and psychologists to recruit precisely, to understand the unique behavior of an individual, and to develop people, team analyses, team onboarding, and team building.

    Indeed, it was the team-onboarding, team-analysis, and team-building features that were particularly useful. After completing the tests, Shadowmatch mapped our results on a graph for comparison. The platform pinpointed

    • our individual strengths and weaknesses,
    • overlaps (similarities) in these strengths and weaknesses,
    • certain behaviors all of us closely exhibited, and
    • those of us who showed vastly different behaviors.

    Each of us could access the results to view the team dynamics. By analyzing the comparisons, we could identify potential conflict points from the start. This identification, in turn, meant that we were better equipped to deal with any conflict because we understood the reasons for it.

    The Many Benefits of Members Understanding Team Dynamics

    You certainly don’t have to use a tool like Shadowmatch, but if members in your team better understand their own behaviors and those of others, they too will be empowered to tackle conflict themselves, without your involvement.

    You and your team will benefit from the above approach in many ways:

    • Behavioral mapping can help you better structure your team from the start. For example, you can identify members who aren’t a good fit and assign them elsewhere.
    • You will spend less time managing your team, meaning you have more time for other essential project tasks.
    • Members will get to know themselves better and understand why they do what they do.
    • Members will learn to deal with conflict in a constructive way. You’ll probably find that those members who continuously clash will begin to laugh about it as they learn to celebrate and appreciate their differences.

    The Bottom Line

    Team conflict will always remain inevitable, but managing it doesn’t have to be. Empower your team by giving them the tools and means to handle conflict themselves, and you’ll both benefit. You will spend less time managing and more time leading, and your team will learn that their individual differences are actually the biggest strength of all.

    An Alternative Approach to Dealing with the Inevitable Team Conflict was last modified: December 12th, 2018 by Nick Darlington
  • In an Information Desert, Rumors Are a Mirage, Not an Oasis (12/11/2018) by Andy Silber

    Working in an office where leadership doesn’t communicate about the critical issues affecting the company is like wandering a desert without a canteen. You wander the office seeking to quench your thirst for information, but all you find are rumors. Everyone is gossiping about possible layoffs or project cancelations.

    These conversations happen when change and uncertainty are in the air, but clear communication from leadership is absent. A couple of things to understand about these conversations:

    • They’re the natural outcome of team members being kept in the dark.
    • They add little or no value since no decisions are made.
    • They can reduce morale, by spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).
    • They are completely preventable with good leadership that trusts the team with critical information.

    The Mirage

    Rumors fly around a nervous office like buzzards around a caravan lost in the desert. These rumors are just a mirage, and they will not slake your thirst for understanding: you’re just drinking sand.

    Imagine all the time that’s been spent speculating with no data around the coffee pots of Seattle since Amazon announced its desire to open HQ2 somewhere else.

    Where will it be? If my manager wants to move, will I have to? Will it be somewhere I want to move?

    Amazon managed the process in a way that maximized speculation in city halls and newsrooms across North America as well as within the hallways throughout South Lake Union (Amazon’s HQ1). How much did these conversations distract from work or reduce morale? Did people look for jobs elsewhere due to FUD? I don’t know; this is just more speculation in the absence of knowledge.

    I once worked at a small company where engineering and manufacturing were on one side of a road and sales, marketing, and the executives were on the other, but we might as well have been on opposite sides of the moon. We could tell the sales were poor only because we could count the number of devices shipping per month on one hand. When I first started, we had “all-hands” meetings about once a year, and it was obvious that the information was out-of-date two weeks later. Priorities were changed; however, the rationale was never explained, and it didn’t matter as the priorities would change again six months later.

    Then, the death spiral started. An all-hands meeting meant layoffs. Time spent developing features that might have saved the company was spent wondering who would be cut. By the time it was my turn, I was glad to be gone and out of the death spiral.

    Funnily, I came back seven weeks later to work on a special project funded by a large pharmaceutical company. It was a great project; we were meeting or beating all of our deadlines, but Phase 2 wasn’t getting signed. Not wanting to be let go twice from the same company, I left. If there had been some communication about why the second phase wasn’t getting signed, I might have stayed on to complete the project.

    The Oasis

    Even in the driest desert, there is a pocket of water and shade, an oasis. How do you turn your office full of FUD into an oasis? I’m guessing you already know the answer: better and clearer communication. When leadership has a poor communication style, gossip will spread quickly throughout an office.

    Sometimes leadership doesn’t communicate because the company has sensitive information that it doesn’t want to become public. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead” (though I think it would sound better coming from Don Corleone), so it’s understandable why not everything is shared. For instance, Amazon clearly didn’t want a high level of transparency around the HQ2 search, so how could they minimize the gossip? One way is to communicate as much as possible. For instance, if they had already decided which teams would be relocated, they could share this information. Those teams that weren’t relocating would relax. The teams that will be moving would gossip as much as before, so the total amount of gossip would be reduced. Having a communication strategy that shares as much information as possible reduces gossip.

    Another approach is to get input from the affected teams. If the team knows their concerns are part of the discussions, the FUD is greatly reduced, which reduces the useless chatter. This only works if leadership has earned the trust of the team and if the team members are confident their concerns will be factored into the decisions. Leadership earns that trust by making good, informed decisions consistently. Without that history and trust, gathering input doesn’t help as much as it will once trust is earned.

    Most companies will experience tough times in their lives and will have great distances of fear, uncertainty, and doubt to cross. Communication and trust are the foundations of turning your office space from a desert to an oasis, and your team can pass from oasis to oasis and emerge on the other side stronger for the effort.

    In an Information Desert, Rumors Are a Mirage, Not an Oasis was last modified: December 11th, 2018 by Andy Silber
  • Ask a PM: How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project? (12/6/2018) by Elizabeth Harrin

    Dear Elizabeth: My project is struggling, but no one except me can see it. I don’t have the authority to cancel the project, but I don’t think it’s worth my team working on it. On top of that, my project sponsor has unrealistic expectations, and those demands keep changing. We can’t keep up with new demands, and I know that carrying on is not the right thing for this business. How do I get my sponsor to cancel the project?

    There are a lot of things to unpack here! For a start, you are right that you don’t have the authority to cancel the project. That decision needs to come from your project sponsor or project prioritization committee (whatever that process looks like in your company).

    However, if you know the project is already off track, I’m sure the rest of your team know that too. That has a damaging effect on morale. Left unmanaged for too long, you’ll start to lose your team members as they go off to work on projects where they feel they are making more of a difference.

    Let’s see if we can stop that before it happens.

    Explain Why the Project Adds No Value

    Have you told anyone that the project isn’t worth continuing? If not, you should make your voice heard straight away.

    Actually…not straight away. Do a little bit of planning first so you can be sure your message is heard.

    Why are you so sure this project is no longer worth continuing? Typically, projects are closed down prematurely for the following reasons:

    • The project budget has been re-forecasted and will cost more money than the company is prepared to pay.
    • The project’s benefits were miscalculated, and the return on investment is no longer worth the time/budget spent on the project.
    • The project schedule has been re-forecasted, and the work is now going to take longer than the business is prepared to commit.
    • A key senior stakeholder has left, and there is no executive drive to complete the project.
    • The business strategy has changed, and the project is no longer a good fit.

    In other words, the project can no longer achieve its original goals.

    If you are certain that you cannot deliver the original intent of the business case, then you need to tell your sponsor and your PMO team if you have one. Phrase your concerns in terms that relate back to the original objectives and benefits. Spell out what is required to complete the project and say that’s far more ambitious/expensive/ time-consuming than the business case ever allowed for. Recommend stopping the project because [insert your reasons], but that at a minimum you recommend the business case is updated with the latest position and sent back to whomever for review.

    The benefit of updating the business case is that you are pushing the decision to cancel on to someone with more authority than you.

    It might be possible to go into “turnaround” mode and save the project, but this will take considerable time, effort, and commitment on behalf of your business. From what you have said, it probably isn’t worth it; however, your exec team might consider saving the project, especially if the project has some strategic significance even though the end result makes no money and adds no apparent value.

    Think about What You Can Save

    Everything you are working on might seem pointless at the moment, but I doubt that is true. Look at what you can save from your project. Is there something you could finish that goes some way to delivering something useful? Have you already created something that could be used by another team?

    For example, you haven’t delivered a full suite of web tools as expected, but you can say you have delivered one. Even if you only did the groundwork for another project to deliver more at another time, you can say you implemented the infrastructure, designed the code framework, and set up the protocols for something.

    Take whatever you have done as a team and see how it could be put to use. If you were to wrap up the project, think about what can be saved, passed on to other teams, and reused in the future. Doing this exercise will help your team transition to other work more easily and with higher morale because you’ll be able to say that the time spent on the project was not a total waste.

    Have a lessons-learned meeting to discuss what happened and what could be done differently next time. Feed all of the output back into the PMO or other project teams so they don’t make the same mistakes.

    Use Your Project Reports

    Use the features in your project management software to highlight the issues. If your project is struggling, you should be reporting it as ‘Red’ every month.

    When you use tools like LiquidPlanner, you can give your executives a cross-project view of what is going on. Then, they can easily compare the progress and status of your failing project with how other projects are doing. I imagine yours will stand as an outlier!

    The best thing about dashboards is that they are dynamically updated. You are providing real-time information to your project stakeholders, and they can see exactly where you are. This all helps with managing expectations.

    Manage Expectations

    Here comes a hard truth: stakeholders have unrealistic expectations because we as project managers fail to set them at a reasonable level and manage them going forward.

    I know you don’t want to be the employee who keeps saying no, but stakeholders often need to hear a dose of reality. The best technique I have to help you manage this is to change how you respond to requests for change. Instead of saying, “No, we can’t do that because…” switch it up. “OK, we can do that, AND it would take more money/time/people/another quality check/input from Legal/whatever.”

    You are saying yes in principle to whatever expectation or change is raised. Then, you explain the reality of what doing it that way would mean.

    Be totally transparent with reporting. Never hide any delays or challenges. Talk to your sponsor about the issues you are facing as a team and what you are doing about them. They need to know that the project is hard or struggling or facing a difficult time. You can also tell them that you have things in hand (if you do). But, failing to talk to them about the realities of life on the project will mean they assume everything is going perfectly. Let them know what it’s really like—in a professional way—and that should help them start to see things from your point of view.

    You can do this through transparency. Make sure they see a copy of your monthly report. Give them access to the project management software tools and dashboards that you produce. Make time to brief them regularly. Have project board meetings or steering group meetings and discuss progress.

    Take every opportunity to add in governance and structure that will help manage their expectations.

    Be Honest

    Finally, be proud of what you have achieved. It’s not comfortable to be leading a piece of work that isn’t going well and that can’t be turned around. Look after your team and look out for them too. Be aware that some projects keep going because the exec sponsor is not prepared to lose face by making the decision to stop the project. Sometimes that’s office politics at play, and you will get caught up in it. Do your best to stay impartial and honest, and present the project how it really is, not how they would like it to be.

    I sense a difficult conversation ahead…good luck!

    Ask a PM: How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project? was last modified: November 30th, 2018 by Elizabeth Harrin
  • How to Create and Energize a Fan Base (12/4/2018) by Todd Humphrey

    Building a Community of Engaged Customers, Stakeholders, and Employees with Tod Leiweke

    I was super excited to sit down with Tod Leiweke, the first CEO of NHL Seattle, just a week before Seattle was awarded its new NHL franchise today.

    As a former professional hockey player and an avid fan, hearing Tod’s plan on how he’s going to make Seattle a world-class hockey city is very exciting for me. His past successes of building teams, creating fan bases, engaging with stakeholders, and giving back to the community is something we can all learn from and use in our daily lives.

    Tod has an incredible sports history. He has more than 30 years of executive experience in the NBA, NHL, PGA, and MLS organizations, and before he came back to Seattle, he was the chief operating officer of the NFL. Tod’s track record includes leading the Seattle Seahawks to the franchise’s first ever NFL Super Bowl appearance in 2006 and taking the Tampa Bay Lightning to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in 2015.

    It’s an exciting time for Tod, the NHL and, of course, hockey fans in Seattle. Being from Canada, this news is definitely the highlight of my month, and I could think of no one better to help answer the Todd Talks question: How do you create and energize a fan base to grow your business, brand, and culture?

    Throughout his career, Tod has developed a reputation for building outstanding management teams that have built world-class franchises. At the core of these successful franchises has been Tod’s ability to create rabid fan bases, including his establishment of the 12th Man here in Seattle, reenergizing the fan base, and resulting in 60 consecutive sellouts at CenturyLink Field. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers called CenturyLink Field “a tough place to play” during last month’s game, and he wasn’t talking about the weather—he was talking about the fans.

    It all starts with aligning everyone around a shared mission.

    Tod shares that it is easy to win, but on any given day, half the teams lose. So, while we all want to win, other parts of a mission are important to its success. He talks in detail about three themes: creating a loyal fan base, building your brand, and making an impact on the community. He reveals one of his strategies to starting and growing his businesses has been to make every fan feel like they are stakeholders in the team and that their investment is in time and emotion, not money. In his industry of professional sports, the perfect circle is the relationship between fans and players. Fans inspire players, and when players become inspired, they further inspire the fans.

    That’s the core of the relationship. Great organizations have a transparent relationship between the fans and the players, and that’s the unique connection. Think about this in your own business and the relationship between your customers and employees and how that can drive long-lasting loyalty and momentum. I see this even in business: our teams do amazing things when they feel inspired by our customers; our customers excel, and the circle keeps going.

    Looking at your customers as fans also influences the type of people you hire and how you manage your team. Tod talks about how he believes honesty, morality, and authenticity are important for building out a great culture. He also values a deep commitment to serve. You really can’t go wrong when you have an inspired team who are ready to serve your stakeholders, whether that is fans, customers, partners, etc., to build something great. Tod says people don’t work for him, rather he works for everyone else, and ultimately, they all work for the fans.

    Tod brings his teams’ influence as a brand far beyond the field. The communities in cities surrounding Tod’s teams feel the love, too. Community involvement is a huge factor Tod credits when I asked what makes his teams’ cultures so successful. The team is much more than just their wins or losses.

    This speaks to me as an athlete, a father, and a sports fan in general. Considering the multiple ways the culture you create at a company (or in your life) affects those around you is a surefire way to build a solid foundation for any brand.

    I can’t wait to see what Tod and his team create in Seattle. I know I will be counting down the days until that Canadian National Anthem rings out over the newly minted Seattle team mark.

    Listen to more of my talk with Tod below.

    Todd Talks is a monthly podcast brought to you by LiquidPlanner. Subscribe now on iTunes, Soundcloud, Spotify, and Google Play.

    Have a topic you’d like to hear more about? Let us know!

    How to Create and Energize a Fan Base was last modified: December 4th, 2018 by Todd Humphrey
  • People Are Not Cogs: How to Manage a Project with People, not Resources (11/29/2018) by Andy Silber

    In a factory, people are managed like a piece of equipment, a resource that is applied to a well-described task. Anyone who has been trained in this task can be assigned and the same result is expected. If not, the fault is in the process or training, not in the person performing the task. The goal in this environment is to minimize the variation in how the task is done regardless of who is doing it.

    Jimmy Jia, founder and CEO of Distributed Energy Management, once told me, “One increases variation to increase innovation.” In other words, if you create tight processes that are very predictable (as in a factory), then you are guaranteed to get a predictable outcome and limit your possibilities for innovation.

    So, how do you manage your resources to increase innovation?

    You treat them like the people they are rather than the lifeless cogs in a machine that the term “resources” makes them seem to be. Without the diversity of approaches, skills, viewpoints, and personal history that people can bring to your team, innovation won’t happen.

    Planning with People

    One of the fundamental assumptions of project management is that resources are fungible—that if you need an electrical engineer, then anyone in a pool of electrical engineers will do. You might need to break your pool into smaller groups with specialized experience (e.g., antenna design, FCC certification, high-voltage electronics, low-voltage electronics), but within the group, anyone will do. You build your work breakdown structure, make your duration estimates, and calculate your delivery dates with a generic resource. When the time comes, the functional manager provides you with an actual person from the pool. For good or for ill, that person is not a cog, but an actual human being with strengths and weaknesses.

    Imagine you have a team called “Desert Residents” that has two members: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Both team members can manage the basics of the role (i.e., survive in a hot, dry environment), but they have different strengths and weaknesses. Road Runner does two things very well: run and go beep-beep. She runs fast and far and beep-beeps at just the right time to startled Wile E. Coyote. Road Runner will probably get your tasks completed faster than expected if they just require what she can do well. If you get Coyote, he’s going to take longer completing these basic tasks of running and beeping, but if you need someone who can carefully dissect a problem and create a solution that didn’t exist before solely out of parts from the ACME catalog, Coyote will complete those tasks and Road Runner won’t. Of course, most of Coyote’s ideas are overly complex and don’t work well, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.

    As a project manager, you should understand the details of the tasks and the skills the team members have, and you should work with the functional manager to make sure that you get the right person on the team. During the planning stage, you need to identify the constraints of “We need Coyote on this project, and we’ll wait for him” or “I’m scheduling assuming I get Roadrunner, and I’ll be late if I get Coyote.” If you need to get a particular person, make sure to include some wait time in your schedule because you might not be the only one waiting for that particular person.

    Understanding Team Dynamics

    As a PM, you need to understand more than just the capabilities and efficiency of your team members, but also their work styles. Some hate to be micromanaged; tell them what they need to accomplish and by when, and then leave them alone. For others, you might need to explain the big picture in detail and how their tasks fit into it. Still, others want to be micromanaged and be told what to do every step of the way.

    I once worked with an engineer at an off-site vendor who loved nothing more than a challenge. I would just say, “It would be great if the software could do XYZ.” Then, I wouldn’t contact him for a week or two. My patience was always rewarded when a solution to my challenge would just show up in my email box. He hated being “managed” but loved being challenged. It was hard for my management to understand that asking for updates and commitments was counterproductive.

    Imagine one of your teams has three members: Moe, Curly, and Larry.

    • Moe is technically capable and a bully. He gets things done and occasionally has brilliant ideas, but he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.
    • Curly is funny and is constantly getting off topic. He sees problems differently than others, which sometimes leads to creative solutions.
    • Larry is quiet and gets his work done. His solutions aren’t very creative, and he’s not very fast; however, he is diligent.

    You can’t manage these three “resources”; you need to manage three people, and they need different support from the PM. Here are some possible approaches:

    • With Moe, set rules on how to behave and how decisions are made. You need to stress that other ideas may be better than his, and even if they aren’t, they need to be respectfully considered. Quietly keep notes for HR and the functional manager, but hopefully, by setting clear boundaries and modeling proper team behavior, things will be okay. If the bullying persists be prepared to escalate. I strongly agree with Robert I. Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, and regardless of Moe’s brilliance, if the bullying persists he needs to go.
    • For Curly, I would let his funny flag fly. Work can be overly serious, and someone having fun is worth the distraction, up to a point. Before it gets to that point, gently guide him and the team back to agenda. If he has an out-of-the-box idea, explore it enough to see if it’s valid or might lead to an interesting, unexpected solution.
    • For Larry, make sure he has appropriate work to do and knows when you need it. Update your schedule so that Larry has enough time to complete the tasks. If changes need to be made to the plan, implement them in the beginning before you’re running late with few options.

    Having a team with three Moes, three Curlys, or three Larrys would be terrible. Without a Moe, you’re unlikely to get the complex solution you might need. Without a Curly, work just wouldn’t be as much fun, and you’d miss his distinct perspective. Without Larry, it would be difficult to get the critical, but mundane, work done. An innovative team is stronger with a variation in strengths and styles.

    Embracing Diversity

    Having a diverse team can be seen as a challenge when it’s actually a strength. Without a variety of viewpoints and experiences, it’s very hard to come up with something truly new. As you build your team, it’s much better to have people who can constructively disagree than having everyone on the same page. It’s your job as a team leader to make sure the energy is productive and the direction is towards a solution, without zooming past Curly’s crazy idea that just might work while quickly eliminating Coyote’s overly-complex solution that won’t work.

    People Are Not Cogs: How to Manage a Project with People, not Resources was last modified: November 29th, 2018 by Andy Silber
Blog Archive was last modified: April 28th, 2017 by Team Liquidplanner