Author: Andy Crowe

Andy Crowe

About Andy Crowe

Andy Crowe is the CEO and founder of Velociteach, and author of Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know that Everyone Else Does Not; The PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try, and the The PMI-ACP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try. His books have sold over 150,000 copies worldwide. Velociteach was PMI’s provider of the year in 2012 and was recognized as one of 2013’s top 100 small businesses in the USA by the US Chamber of Commerce. He is a PMP, a PgMP, and a Six Sigma Black Belt, and he lives in Kennesaw, GA.

5 Ways AI and Automation Will Change Project Management

Technology has made our lives easier. If you don’t believe that, go watch a few episodes of the PBS series, The Frontier House. While technology and automation have lessened some of the strain, they’ve also stirred up a lot of fear.

The Luddite movement in the early 1800s is one of history’s more famous examples of humans lashing out at automation. During a period of low wages and England’s war with France, English textile workers saw automation and textile machinery as a threat to their livelihood. The Luddites burned and smashed looms and other machines they believed were destined to replace them.

Since then, there have been numerous backlashes against technology and automation. In the 1980s, United States postal workers protested the introduction of letter sorting machines. Today, taxi drivers are protesting over ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber.

At its heart, automation is about solving a problem or a task that can be reliably offloaded from a person to a machine. Manufacturing has seen amazing progress due to automation, and now there are several opportunities for automation in project management to make our lives easier.

Rather than replace the role of project manager, which I don’t see happening any time soon, I think automation will relieve us from some of the more mundane tasks and help bring consistency to our daily lives.

Technology has been steadily impacting the jobs of project managers for years now, but recently the pace has quickened dramatically. Now project managers, like almost everyone else, are seeing automation on the horizon. Rather than run in fear, I suggest that we may find this technology is the friendly kind that can help.

Here are five ways I believe automation will impact our jobs in the near future.

1. Offloading Truly Routine Tasks to Increase Value

We are already making progress in automating things like tracking time, updating estimates, and reporting schedule progress. When put together, these have the potential to reduce meeting time and improve accuracy. All of this can free up your team to focus on the more valuable tasks.

The project manager can use a central hub to collect information and updates from team members, which will help ensure that updates are timely and thorough. We have seen some of this already. But, with heuristics and quality assessment algorithms, the best is yet to come.

2. Improving Assessments to Identify Risks

In the 2002 movie Minority Report, authorities were alerted to serious crimes before they even occurred. You would think all of this proactivity would make life easier, but that would have been a boring story.

Imagine, however, that you had a list of likely delays, risks, and problems before they occurred. This technology already exists in the supply chain world, and it’s only a matter of aggregating the right pieces of data for it to work for project teams.

Some projects already receive weather, traffic, and shipment notifications to alert them to problems before they manifest. Add to that the possibility of supplier problems, failed quality checks, delays, and personnel issues, and suddenly you have the potential for a robust risk tool.

3. Employing Metadata to Detect Problems

You may have noticed how your phone has become smarter in recent months. It can predict what you are going to type next and even anticipate where you are walking or driving. While this is the result of a relatively straightforward process of monitoring and then predicting your behavior and routines, the impact is downright amazing.

We now can unobtrusively collect metadata and look at how team members do their jobs. Many thought leaders believe that we can understand more from this metadata than by looking at the actual work product. There is a gold mine of information waiting. We just need to learn to mine it effectively.

In fact, many industries, including credit scoring, counter-terrorism, and financial institutions, are using metadata to predict events before they happen. In my community, a large EMS provider uses metadata and analytics to predict where and when traffic accidents will occur and proactively station ambulances near those intersections. The results are uncannily accurate.

Soon, project managers will have tools that give us a treasure trove of information about our teams’ performance. A lot of predictions can be made by analyzing the habits, the communication, the focus, the time spent on task, and other attributes of the person responsible for doing the work.

4. Facilitating Communication to Improve Accuracy

Automation can offload mundane tasks. For example, an application could get updates from the team, produce key reports, and raise triggers and alerts when problems were detected. Communication is one of the trickiest areas for a project manager to master. Software already exists to correct grammar, but other algorithms are being deployed to help identify potentially problematic phrases, and improve accuracy and truthfulness

5. Coordinating Tasks to Increase Efficiency

When I started out in project management, the ideal project manager was a directing and controlling figure who handled everything and everyone. Over time, the idea of monitoring more and controlling less has emerged. Today, the role of a project manager is trending toward that of coordinator and coach and less of dictator. This concept of monitoring becomes important because the project manager is supposed to be proactive, and if something can alert us to an emerging problem then we are ahead of the game.

And the good news is that coordinating is something software can help with. Everyone is connected, and now real-time decisions can be made about tasks and their priorities. This allows an algorithm to make decisions about who completes which task in a way that can optimize the project. This has particular potential with agile projects where “generalizing specialists” who can be deployed somewhat interchangeably within the team are favored over siloed individuals. All of this holds the potential of freeing up the project manager from refactoring the schedule repeatedly.

There will always be the need for project managers to get things done (or as Snoop Dogg says, to “put paint where it ain’t”), and the fundamentals of project management remain the same today as they have been for decades. It is our job to develop a solid understanding of success, build a good team, plan carefully, communicate well, adapt, resolve conflict, and manage the value delivery. Automation has the potential to make many of those tasks easier, but it likely won’t replace people any time soon.

7 Steps to Build a Continuous Improvement Culture

Kaizen is not flashy, nor instant. But it can have a profound impact on your business. Lean expert Andy Crowe offers seven steps to get you there.

After World War II, new theories about quality began to be implemented. Many of these ideas were brought to Japan and embraced by the country as it rebuilt in the years after the war. These ideas would ultimately change manufacturing and the world.

“Continuous improvement” was one of these ideas. The Japanese distilled the essence of this idea to a single word: “kaizen.” It is a quality philosophy that includes improvement of the product, the processes the design and produce them, and the way the teams carry out those processes.

For example, the old way would take a product, get it into its category, optimize the process, and sit back and make money. In fact, we even talk about mature products as being a “cash cow.” Or, something you milk for cash as long as it produces.

Kaizen, however, is part of a different way of looking at things. A product or a process will likely never be “good enough.” As the name implies, the goal is to never stop improving.

This idea can make a tremendous difference in the product you manufacture today and how you do it. But what if your company doesn’t practice kaizen? In this article, we will explore seven ways to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization–even if you’re starting from scratch.

It’s important to remember that changing the culture of an organization is notoriously difficult. Companies are (in)famous for starting an initiative and then quietly abandoning it, and that is especially true for something like continuous improvement.

Kaizen is not flashy, and it’s not instantly transformative. It takes time to implement, and the benefits realization can sometimes be agonizingly slow.

This isn’t just some new initiative. It’s a culture change, and changing the culture is one of the most difficult things a leader can undertake.

In the 1990s movie “What About Bob”, Bill Murray plays Bob, a man paralyzed by decisions until his psychologist suggests that he practice “baby steps.” While this strategy backfires for the psychologist, those looking to implement a culture of continuous improvement will benefit from the advice.  It takes baby steps.

If you are ready to try to implement a culture of continuous improvement in your organization, these seven steps will help you get there.

  1. Commit throughout the organization. That is a big part of what makes this work. It’s not just the people at the top or the bottom of an organization that make continuous improvement possible. There is no more “us and them” mentality. Everyone needs to be moving toward the same goal.
  2. Make kaizen part of the new routine. At some automobile factories, small teams meet before work each week to talk about one tiny change they are going to try to implement in order to improve their process. Continuous improvement is something that needs to be revisited regularly. The routine is key to sustaining it.
  3. Tie it back to everyone’s job. Some people will almost certainly look at this as just one more new initiative that they simply need to outlive. To take it seriously, they may need to incentivized.
  4. Measure the results. (If it’s done right, these should be positive, and these are usually cumulative). Continuous improvement is metrics-driven. This means that terms like good, bad, and better become very objective. Continuous improvement works, but it takes time. It’s like saving money: at first, the benefits (e.g., interest) you earn is barely noticeable. But once you have enough, the interest income starts to add up. Before long, you are earning interest on your interest.
  5. Communicate. Unlike some initiatives, you may not have quick wins. It will probably take time, because continuous improvement is not instantly transformative. Keep everyone aware of what is going on while you are waiting for the results to speak for themselves.
  6. Be deliberate and patient. Creating a culture of continuous improvement is an exercise in demonstrating continuous improvement. You need serious commitment and sustained energy. Many of us make a practice to look for the quickest, highest value wins. Kaizen is more like the effect of oceans on the beach. It’s relentless and disciplined. It can take time to produce the results that many organizations want. A company with this kind of mindset may not be completely ready for kaizen. Also, keep this in mind: even if you have a healthy organization, it will likely be resistant to change.
  7. Repeat. These are baby steps, and this is the real heart of continuous improvement. Go over these steps again and again. This is continuous; you will never really be finished.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement will not only help make the product better. It helps make the teams and the organizations better, and like compounding interest, the benefits keep coming.

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager”, as well as our productivity toolkit.  

5 Practical Habits for Today's Project Manager

What Puts Manufacturing Teams Ahead: Lean Six Sigma

Manufacturing Six Sigma

In any given year, I attend a lot of project management conferences. There are always common themes that come up at these conferences, but these days it seems that you can’t turn around without getting smacked in the face by Lean Six Sigma. It’s everywhere, and it’s not a fad. Lean Six Sigma has been growing up for quite a while now. It’s no longer the new kid on the block. It’s more like the youth who went away to school and returned as a ripped 26-year-old athlete. It has matured in all the right ways, and right now it is entering a golden age.

Before we go any further, allow me to make a confession: I believe that Lean Six Sigma is the dharma path for much of manufacturing. That is true, at least, until someone discovers a better way, which they eventually will. It’s true for manufacturing projects, but innovators are also extending it to projects trying to create a standardized outcome for their service delivery. Quality is quality, and Lean Six Sigma can push yours higher.

Why Lean Six Sigma Now?

Manufacturing had a long, slow progression up until the industrial revolution when the shift from the craftsman to the assembly line changed everything. Despite the fact that we lost some of the handmade beauty, we gained two really powerful things: predictability and repeatability. The trouble is, just because something is predictable and repeatable doesn’t necessarily make it good or high quality. When I was growing up, my friend had a 1971 Pinto. It was very predictable, and we spent a lot of time on the side of the road as a consequence.

This is where Lean Six Sigma enters into the equation. It basically looks at the process, the design, and the outcome and makes data-drive decisions to guide you in improving them. Companies like IBM and GE that have implemented this have seen incredible results that translated into economic growth.

What Makes Lean Six Sigma So Great?

Lean Six Sigma tools and methodologies are a gift to project managers who are responsible to deliver world-class quality as part of their outcome. Here’s why: As the name implies, Lean Six Sigma is a philosophy and a toolset made up of Lean principles and Six Sigma methodologies.  The Lean component focuses primarily on efficiency and eliminating waste, while the Six Sigma component helps make things consistent and predictable. Together this is a combination that has not been surpassed. Seriously—it’s better than red wine and dark chocolate.

Lean Six Sigma strips down all of the processes to their shiny, bare essentials and then tunes them to be highly reliable. When it’s done right, your manufacturing project hums along like a finely tuned engine. In my opinion, getting to this stage is some of the most important work a project manager will do or oversee.

Waste relentlessly creeps into manufacturing projects from multiple angles. It is a distraction and a drain on profits at best, but it can sink successful companies when it rises to even moderate levels. The Lean community looks for waste in Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Overproduction, and Defects (abbreviated as TIMWOOD). Lean’s goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate waste in these areas, and it’s not a one-time activity. You perform it over and over, constantly seeking to improve your practice and waste less. The tricky part is that waste can sometimes be easy to see but difficult to eliminate. The good news is that once you do eliminate it, everyone benefits—your employees, the customer, and the performing organization.

The Six Sigma component seeks to make your quality consistent and to improve it to world-class level. It gives you tools to track issues, prioritize them, and systematically eliminate them. Six Sigma looks at the raw materials, the work being done, the product’s design, and the end result in order to tune them for improvement.

When Lean and Six Sigma are combined properly, it can create a magical benefit where your organization not only gets better, but it can achieve the mythical unicorn status of getting better at getting better. It’s like unlocking a secret level of efficiency.

How to Get Started

So If you’ve decided that Lean Six Sigma might be useful, where do you begin? Here are four steps to help you get underway.

1. Stop and look at your process.

Take a step away from your current process, and use fresh optics to take it all in from the top down. One great way to help with this is to create a Value Stream Map. This is where you map out the entire workflow, step by step, and carefully examine each element. Then you determine whether or not these steps add value. If it does not add value, then the step is flagged for elimination. A good Lean Six Sigma initiative puts a lot of energy into streamlining processes.

2. Measure and collect data.

If you have a manufacturing process as part of your project, then empirical measurements become all important. This is particularly true when it comes to issues and defects. Collect the metrics that tell the whole story. As Peter Drucker famously said: “What gets measured gets improved.”

Whenever something undesirable happens, lead your team through root cause analysis to understand the fundamental reason why. Then you attack these underlying causes, starting with the ones that will have the largest impact. Your goal is to get it right and then to remove any variance at production levels. In other words, nail it and scale it.

3. Train your team.

One reason training helps is that it develops a common vocabulary when it comes to production quality; another reason for training is to keep the concepts front and center. Lean Six Sigma can give quick benefits, but it’s arguably like exercise. The best benefits are realized over a long period time.

4. Focus on the Process

If you get the process right, the outcome will follow. Sometimes it takes time, but the process always drives the outcome. Be patient and relentless when it comes to this.

Even if you are not ready to commit to an entire formal Lean Six Sigma program, these steps will help you get started on the path. And this path is the one which separates the best companies in the world from all the rest.

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

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Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Why Is Six Sigma Important to Manufacturing Teams?

Six Sigma

Anyone who has ever led a manufacturing project can attest to the fact that they have unique challenges. Nearly all projects iterate through some version of the “planning, execution and control” cycle, but manufacturing takes that to new levels. This is particularly true when you are going to be churning out a high volume of the same thing, such as an automobile part or an electrical component.

Watching the end result of a project manifest itself as thousands (or millions) of an item rolling off of a conveyer belt can elicit an almost Zen like pleasure. But it also can be accompanied by a sinister side effect: variance. Variance is the enemy of production, but the trouble is that virtually everything varies somewhat in this universe if you measure it carefully enough. There are simply tiny fluctuations present in everything we see and touch. This includes even the most precise goods made today. Addressing variance is where the processes of Six Sigma shines.

What’s a “Sigma”?
Six Sigma is a group of processes that were born at Motorola and made famous at General Electric. Now it is used in many of the best manufacturing companies around the world.  Before we get into the specifics of what Six Sigma is and why it’s important, let’s discuss what a sigma is and why it matters.

When you are manufacturing a product, standardization matters. In fact, whether or not the product is a “quality” product depends upon the product falling within a certain range of specifications.

As stated earlier, everything deviates from a standard if you measure it carefully enough. The goal is to take measurements that are fine enough to capture these fluctuations. You average these measures together to determine the mean, and then you can calculate the standard deviation of all of those numbers. This simply tells how diverse your data set is. Diversity can be a good thing but not when you are dealing with products that are supposed to be standardized!

Ideally, your measurements should be grouped very closely to the mean. This would indicate a low standard deviation, which is desirable. On the other hand, a high standard deviation indicates a lot of variance, which means your processes are probably not under control.

This is where we get the word “sigma.” A sigma, abbreviated as “σ“, represents a distance on either side of the mean.  A single standard deviation from the mean is called “one sigma.” So one sigma quality means that only the items with measurements that fell within one standard deviation passed quality inspection. Unfortunately, this only equates to about 31 percent. Three sigma quality is much better since it means that many more passed through quality. That gets us up to over 93 percent quality.

If you have achieved six sigma quality, you have only 3.4 defects for every one million products that your organization produces. This is considered to be world class.

world class
What Six Sigma Looks Like in the Real World

One way it has been described is that one sigma quality equates to an error per page in a book. Three sigma quality equates to a single error in the whole book. Six Sigma quality would have only a single error in the entire library. When you achieve the level of six sigmas, you have essentially removed most of the things that can be controlled. Remaining defects will fluctuations in line with the nature of materials, etc.

The 5 Steps of Six Sigma

But the goal is not simply to achieve this quality. The goal is to be able to achieve it repeatedly and predictably every time you manufacture the product. This generally involves not only the organization performing the project but also the entire supply chain.  So Six Sigma has a series of steps to help you achieve world class quality and sustain it. This family of steps is abbreviated as DMAIC. If you work around Six Sigma, you will see DMAIC a lot. It is an acronym that stands for:


Here’s a look at each step:

  • Data: The steps that make up DMAIC are based on hard numerical analysis and not simply observation. The team gathers data and those data are used to understand and make decisions. As W. Edwards Deming famously stated, “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.”This data-driven approach begins with the step of Define. In other words, define the problem, define the scope, and define what success would look like. Steven Covey urged us to “Begin with end in mind”, and this is simply an empirical understanding of what that end should look like.
  • Measure is where you take very specific measurements of your current reality. This starts with the output but may grow to include measurements about how the output is being produced.
  • Analyze is about coming up with a plan to move from the current measured state to the desired state. It commonly involves root cause analysis so that you are not simply dealing with surface issues.
  • The step of Improve takes action to move the current state to the desired state. The previous steps of Define and Analyze are to gain an understanding of what is wrong and how to fix it, but this step takes real steps to bring the product into quality tolerances.
  • Control is about making your change consistently repeatable. This is not about a one-time fix. It is about putting the right change policies, and processes in place to produce consistently better products. This can be the most frustrating step in the entire process.
Prevention Over Inspection

A common reaction when looking at this list is: “What happened to inspection?” In other words, how can you have high quality if product inspection is not an integral part?  The answer is that Six Sigma, like most modern quality programs values prevention over inspection. It is based on the principle that quality cannot be inspected into a product after it has already been manufactured. Instead, quality is all about prevention. When it comes to delivering quality products, planning always wins over inspection.

The art is to learn to identify, measure, and ultimately eliminate variances. And this is not a one-time activity. It has to be done throughout the project and into subsequent operations, because waste is like weeds in a lawn or garden. You get rid of the undesirables but then they inevitably and relentlessly come creeping back in.

Is Six Sigma Right for Your Project?

You can best answer this question by looking at the type of manufacturing or service delivery involved in your project. In cases where the manufacturing is not highly consistent, it may be best to try a different approach. A great example of a Six Sigma project includes Motorola manufactured circuit boards and silicon processors and chips. This was highly repetitive and did not vary much within a product line. On the other hand, consider an aircraft manufacturer that delivers a relatively small quantity of planes that are each configured differently—not a great candidate for Six Sigma?

Taking the steps to achieve world class quality can be intimidating, but it brings big rewards. If you are ready to learn more about Six Sigma and what it can do for you, the American Society for Quality could be a great place for you to begin.

Did you know that only 2.5% of companies successfully complete 100% of their projects? That’s sign of a bad project management process. How would you rate yours? Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.  

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An Introduction to Critical Path

Modern project management was born around the time of World War II. Germany built the first interstate highway system, the Reichsautobahnen, in the 1930s, and the United States began The Manhattan Project approximately a decade later to create the first man-made nuclear weapon. These massive projects required planning on a staggering scale, and the people who undertook them needed new tools and techniques in order to carry them to completion.

critical path

This period represented the first golden age of project management, one when scientists, politicians, organizational psychologists, managers, workers, and executives all put their heads together to come up with better ways to get things done.

One of the techniques invented around that time was the Critical Path Method, or CPM. Combined with the Gantt chart, it provided a straightforward way to prioritize and visualize the most important tasks on the project, and it became so widespread that many people think about this view of the project when they think about the project plan.

The Critical Path premise

The CPM is based on the idea that some (usually most) tasks can slip or be delayed without impacting the project’s delivery; some, however, cannot. The activities that cannot be delayed are said to be “critical,” since the project’s timely delivery depends on their scheduled completion, and the combination of all of these critical activities is known as the critical path.

Although it can be tedious and time-consuming, using CPM is fairly straightforward. It follows this basic formula:

  1. Identify all the tasks or schedule activities necessary to complete the project.
  2. Determine the order in which these tasks have to be accomplished (i.e. which ones have to be performed before others can be started or completed).
  3. Estimate the resources and the duration of each activity. This particular step sometimes requires several passes since the number of resources you apply to an activity will usually affect the duration.

When you have completed the steps above, voila, the critical path emerges as the longest path (or paths) of connected activities from start to finish.

All of this work can be performed manually if you are a glutton for punishment, but these days there are project management tools that can take care of the heavy lifting of instantly calculating the critical path regardless of the complexity of your schedule. This lets you focus on more creative aspects of your job, such as experimenting with the number of resources needed, and playing around with the order in which work should be performed.

And keep in mind that there can be more than one critical path, and that the critical path may change as the project work takes place.

So now that you have this wonderful Gantt chart that shows you which path is critical, what do you do?

The answer is, you pay attention to it! All other things being equal, project managers should probably track the critical path more carefully than the other paths.

Why is CPM such a useful technique?

It’s like learning to cook an omelet or fix a flat tire—some basic skills are good to have. Every project manager can benefit from learning how to calculate and use this technique. Consider this: If you have calculated the critical path correctly, then you have three valuable pieces of information:

  1. The path(s) that determine the project’s delivery date.
  2. The path(s), which if shortened, will allow you to deliver the project early.
  3. The path(s) that pose the highest risk to the schedule.

So now that you know the critical path (and consequently the three things listed above), what do you do with it? Answer: you prioritize.

There is a mostly-forgotten TV series that aired back 1990s where Kyle Chandler’s character woke up each day to find the next day’s newspaper on his doorstep. Then he was faced with the dilemma of figuring out what to do with all that critical information at his disposal.

Sign me up for that.

But without having tomorrow’s newspaper, knowing the critical path is a great starting point for knowing what to do next. Imagine beginning each day with the knowledge of what is important and where to focus your resources. The critical path points the way. Why does this matter? Because the tyranny of the urgent (but not important) threatens projects and project managers every day.

How the Critical Path method helps

Every week, I start out by establishing my top three to five goals that will make a difference. Now, I am certain that I will get urgent emails and that “fires” will pop up, and I will be pulled into meetings. The sum of these things can easily become a bottomless pit. When I do get sucked into the trap of pop-up urgencies, I will inevitably look back at the end of the week and find it difficult to account for what I accomplished.

But the Critical Path Method actually helps with this, because it helps you determine what is going to help you deliver your project(s) successfully each week. If you are focusing on the critical path, you are by definition, doing the tasks that are important for the timely completion of the project, even (especially) if they do not seem to be the most urgent at that moment.

This is the spirit of the critical path method.

Parkinson’s Law is widely quoted in project circles. It states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” It is cynical, but it is true.  The more time you give to a task, the more time it will gobble up. CPM helps to put some boundaries on things and show the impact of delays. It helps you visualize what really matters.

Critical path philosophy in nutshell:
Certain tasks require more focus and attention than other tasks. In other words, all tasks are not created equal.

What the critics say

The critical path method is not perfect. Some critics point out that it causes project managers to hyper focus on a potential chain of risks that ultimately means overlook other risks. Remember that the Titanic’s main concern was schedule, but it was actually poised to set a world record when it hit an iceberg. It can be dangerous to narrow our priorities too much.

Another criticism of CPM is that it is often impossible to know at the beginning of the project what the real critical path is going to be.

All of these may be valid, but without a crystal ball or tomorrow’s newspaper a day early, the CPM can be a wonderful place to start.

CPM puts a stake in the ground. It highlights the tasks that are believed to have the highest schedule risk at a point in time, and it helps the team see a way to deliver the project according to the schedule. It is not perfect, like anything, but it is an incredibly useful tool to master.


Your Project Budget Just Got Slashed, Now What? How to Do More With Less

Get More Done With Less

In the mid-90s, I managed a project for a utility company that included a team of 20+ people. I have always liked to start my workday early, and one particular Friday, I was already hard at work when my team started trickling in around 8:30 a.m. About 90 minutes later, the CIO, (earning leadership bonus points for this classy move), had the power cut to the entire floor. Everything but the emergency lighting instantly went out, and at this point he announced that his budget had been cut in half by the CFO, thus our budgets were going to be cut by at least 50 percent. Everyone sat there stunned, while he briefed the project managers on the floor on how layoffs (euphemistically referred to as “resource actions”) were to be carried out. My team lost 10 people that day alone, and after the shock of the personnel changes we had to come to grips with the fact that our budget was also basically cut in half. Of course, the scope and schedule were barely changed at all. Early in a project’s lifecycle, constraints usually become firm and visible. Sometimes this will confirm that the project should be able to glide across the finish line on time and within budget, but how do you handle the situation where it becomes clear that the budget is unrealistically tight or even downright impossible? The example above was a particularly painful one for me, but I did learn some strategies that helped me with the all-too-familiar mandate to do more with less.

1. Prove it.

As a sponsor, when I am funding a project and the manager asks for more funding, my first response is usually the same: “Prove it.” This is not so much a tightfisted move as it is an opportunity for the project manager to demonstrate his or her understanding of the scope and the risk factors. The truth is, nothing speaks louder than data, and your mastery of these facts will help your case.

2. Understand the constraints.

A successful project is a solution that fits somewhere within a set of given constraints. Everyone has a finite amount of time, money and resources to work with. This concept is famously described within project management as the iron triangle (a.k.a. the triple constraint). Constraints limit your solution in some way since they restrict the choices you can make. They are like boundaries that you have to operate within in order to deliver the project successfully. The key is that all of these may not be set in stone. The budget might be tightly constrained, but the schedule could have flexibility. Many times the scope is the most flexible aspect of the project. Understanding your budget and the other constraints that border your project is an important step to finding a way to deliver it successfully. One complication is that some project managers tend to inflate their budgets and estimates beyond reasonable padding. While this appears to make sense from the project manager’s perspective, it’s a real problem for the performing organization. If the organization accepts unrealistically inflated estimates, they’ll tie up capital that they could invest in important projects. From the enterprise perspective, unnecessarily tying up capital is universally a bad thing. Also, sandbagging your estimates erodes trust. Do this a few times, and stakeholders won’t take your numbers seriously anymore.

3. Provide options.

Frank Sinatra famously crooned “All or Nothing At All”, but most projects fall somewhere between those extremes. Very few stakeholders get everything they want, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be satisfied with the outcome. The question becomes: “What can you do within the constrained budget?” Creative solutions in a crisis are where professionals can stand out. A great technique here is to let key stakeholders vote on functionality or attributes of the product to help understand their importance. If you can estimate the effort and cost required to complete each item, then your stakeholders can make decisions just like someone trying to maximize their grocery budget.

4. Focus on the critical success factors.

Accurately identifying the critical success factors (CSFs—the things that will actually make or break your project) falls somewhere between art and science. The reason this is challenging is that you have to look beyond what people say is important and see the factors that truly influence success. In other words, you have to really understand the underlying needs that drive the project. By prioritizing the CSFs, you should be able to focus on delivering more value earlier on, which only helps your chances of success.

5. Tap into your informal networks.

When researching my book, Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not, I was struck by how the most effective managers were often able to get things done outside of official channels. They found a way to beg, borrow and barter resources to accomplish their project goals. For example, one project I managed needed a database expert for about two weeks. We did not have the budget for this, but we were able to barter with another department by doing a tricky piece of development for them in exchange for the resource we needed. Everybody won, and it really did not increase our costs at all.

6. Work what you have.

One trap to avoid in your thinking is that more funding will solve your problems. This is what I refer to as “lottery mindset.” It’s no secret that people who win large lottery payouts frequently end up in bankruptcy. In fact, the numbers suggest that the bankruptcy rate for these winners is approximately double the rate for the general population. Bottom line: More funding does not automatically make things better. In fact, it can have the unintended consequence of leading to more waste. Once you set aside the automatic assumption that more money is absolutely necessary, you can start to implement Lean thinking. The idea behind lean project management in general is that you seek to eliminate all waste and focus (ruthlessly) on activities and processes that deliver value. Lean gives you a new set of optics with which to view your project. The point is not to slash spending, although Lean is a wonderful approach to that. The ultimate goal is to deliver maximum value with maximum efficiently. Lean changes the conversation. Another great way to work with what you have is through value engineering. This is where the team looks at a solution that explores all the ways to get the same overall value for less money. This doesn’t mean the solution will look exactly the same after it has been value engineered. It means you’ll explore every angle to see how you can work within the budget constraints.

7. Understand that resources don’t compensate for low motivation.

Using an example from history (or from Zack Snyder if history is not your thing), in the battle of Thermopylae, 7,000 Greeks defended their homeland against a Persian army that massively outnumbered them. Whatever the factual figures might have been, the Greeks were hugely overpowered—but their dedication and motivation won in the end. As the project manager, you have an opportunity to lead and inspire your team, and this ability separates the great PMs from everyone else.


There are a lot of challenges that come with project management—it’s one of the occupational hazards! When one of these challenges involves having too few dollars to complete your project, take heart. This is not an automatic project death sentence. Keep in mind the unofficial Marine Corps motto: “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” The best managers can do amazing things in the face of adversity, while others will complain and make excuses.

If you liked this article and would like to master some of the most common project management challenges, download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

top 9 project management challenges


5 Ways to Lead a Change Management Initiative: Project Manager As Change Manager

lead change management

Just over 325 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton explained to the world why planets orbit the way they do, while rocks stay put unless something moves them. When we look at that today it seems like common sense, but it was anything but “common” in the 1600s. Newton’s first law explained inertia and helped subsequent generations piece together how the universe works.

Inertia, however, seems to apply to a lot more than just physical objects. It can also be observed in people, organizations and processes—and in these instances it’s not such a great thing. But championing change is a hard thing to do, because people naturally have a resistance to change.

Businesses crave predictability. One of the big contributors here is that investors demand it (understandably so). In order to achieve this predictability, they implement policies, processes, methods and controls to help stabilize operations and turn everything into a predictable model.

Companies wink in and out of existence. New essential business practices explode onto the scene. Things that no one was thinking about a decade ago are suddenly white-hot indispensable topics (e.g. social media marketing, product placement, SEO, sustainability, governance). In order to stay competitive, businesses can’t remain static. Organizations have to be open to changing the way they do things, and on a regular basis.

Which means: The single most challenging task most leaders will ever face is leading their cause or their organization in real change.

I’ve observed quite a few change management initiatives fail, and some of them have failed spectacularly. The ones I have seen succeed have shared some common characteristics. While these are not all necessary for every change initiative you may be managing or leading, think of them as best practices to follow.

change management and your team

Here are five ways to lead a successful change management initiative.

1. Sell the need for change by broadcasting a vision

Change works best when people are on board, and that requires someone to sell a vision. Watching great salespeople at work is a beautiful thing. Why? Because they believe in the product or service, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Sales often gets a bad rap with managers, but the reality is that managers have to constantly be selling. The sooner we make peace with that, the better for all concerned.

It’s the leader’s job to sell stakeholders on the vision, and when it’s done well, it can have a tremendous effect. Successful change management initiatives help people see what’s in it for them. Make your audience the hero of the story.

2. Enlist, deputize and motivate key people

Going it alone will probably end in heartbreak for you. Do yourself and your organization a favor: Get the right people on the bus. The best people to enlist are the ones with a high interest in the outcome of the change and with a high ability to influence the organization.

Balance this by being careful not to overburden the process with too many decision-makers. I am a believer that the likelihood of reaching consensus decreases by the inverse of the square of the number of participants. For those of you who are not mathematically inclined, just keep the number of actual decision-makers small.

3. Look for low-hanging fruit

Quick wins that score high value for low effort are great places to begin. Inevitably, people begin to ask themselves, “Why didn’t I do that?”  These successes create buzz and momentum. And, this buzz lubricates the machine and lowers the friction against change.

4. Broadcast the successes

Benjamin Jowett famously said, “The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.” This is quite contrary to today’s shrill self-promoting culture.

I would push this a little further and say that the way to get credit for your accomplishments is by laying down the desire to receive credit, and generously recognizing others’ contributions and successes. Make sure to identify others on your team who have contributed to success, and then genuinely and publicly praise their wins.

5. Systemize new processes around the change

Have you ever heard the advice that the best way to get over a previous relationship is by beginning a new one? Well, the same thing applies to processes. When you need to retire one process, the best way to respond is by replacing it with a new one.

Whether the change is a new software application, a new department, or simply a new way of doing things, the old way will die hard. But replacing it with a new process helps move things along.


Learning to juggle bowling pins is challenging, but leading change is like juggling while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. Many people never quite get it all right, because it involves orchestrating so many moving parts in concert.

Start small, but don’t be afraid to jump in. Change is going to happen with or without you. It’s best to be in front of it than to be marginalized by it.

Related stories:
How to Make Your Team Active Participants in Organizational Change
5 Steps to Better Change Management
Why Is Organizational Change so Hard?

How to Be a Great Leader

Here’s an interesting problem in today’s business world: One of the most indispensable skills for career advancement as well as for delivering successful projects is rarely taught at the university level.

I’m talking about leadership.


One reason many institutions don’t even attempt to teach leadership is that it far transcends academic instruction. This is a problem, however, because anyone in business (and certainly in management), will benefit from being a competent leader.

First, a point of clarification: Managing and leadership are two different things. Managers produce results, while leaders guide people, processes and organizations into the future. You can teach a large percentage of people how to manage, but teaching someone how to lead is a more challenging proposition.

Leaders must change and adapt

One of the reasons leadership is so difficult to teach is that it encompasses an ever-evolving family of skills. The same abilities and techniques that brought you to a point in your career very likely will not carry you to the next level. You have to change and adapt as a leader, and the truth is that only a few leaders do this successfully.

For example, a project or organization that is rife with infighting might benefit from a strong, directing leadership style; but that same autocratic style might be counterproductive to an organization that is already performing smoothly. Projects or organizations that are running well usually benefit more from a supportive, participative style of leadership.

Your style of leadership has to adapt to the project or organization throughout the lifecycle, and this is one of the hardest things for leaders to get right. You could find that being a strong, directing leader powered your career at one stage, but the trick here is to stay attuned to when it stops working so you can adapt and use a more effective tactic.

Examples of leadership evolutions

When I was in college, I worked at a Big Blue tech giant. During that time, the company had a CEO who achieved his position by shooting up through the ranks. But once at the helm, he struggled in his new role at the top. And this was at a time when the tech world was evolving at a breakneck pace (e.g., Halt and Catch Fire). Unfortunately, our CEO could only see things through the lens of what had worked in the past. The company seemed to be slowly circling the drain in dramatic fashion.

Shortly after the CEO departed the company, they had the foresight to bring in a new CEO from a completely unrelated industry, and the turnaround was stunning. His leadership style was completely different. He adopted a style that was nearly opposite from his predecessor, and the company’s performance (and stock price) skyrocketed back to health.

Stepping up and mobilizing

Managers who want to develop into real leaders face a formidable task. It is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be complex. The acclaimed Harvard leadership guru, John P. Kotter, simplified it into three steps that leaders need to effectively perform:

  1. Establish a vision.
  2. Align people to that vision.
  3. Motivate them to perform and to achieve the vision.

This simple strategy remains as relevant for CEOs of large organizations as it does for first time project management leaders.

In Walter Isaacon’s outstanding biography of Steve Jobs, he tells of a time that the Apple founder had become marginalized in his own company by a new CEO. Finally, Jobs went to key designers and engineers and told them, “Everything you have ever done in your career has been [worthless]. Come work on a secret project with me and let’s change the world.” Those two sentences encapsulated Kotter’s strategy beautifully. Jobs set out a vision of changing the world; identified with the engineers’ frustration that they had not yet had the impact they craved, and offered them a way to “put a ding in the universe.” Then he issued a pointed call to action.

how to become a leader
If you want to lead

I don’t believe that everyone can learn to lead effectively. There has to be some natural ability there for a strong leader to emerge. Some people have greater leadership aptitude than others, but still, there are many elements of leadership that have to be learned. And there is no way to learn them without getting out there, trying, failing, retooling, and repeating.

If you seriously want to grow as a leader, you’ll have to get out there and take initiative. Look for opportunities to lead in your organization. If none are apparent, consider volunteer work, where opportunities abound. Another way to flex your leadership muscle is to find ways to care for your team and the work they do, and nurture teamwork. People are more important than tasks, and if you can prove to be someone who motivates people, you’re on your way.

Even after you become a proven great leader, the process of developing great skills and learning from your successes and failures is never ending. But it’s this process of growing in your role that’s so incredibly rewarding—something that you can continue to develop for the rest of your life.


Related stories:
8 Signs You’re Ready for a Leadership Position
How to Transition From Project Manager to Project Leader
8 Tips for New Team Leaders

3 Ways to Play the Project Management Long Game

One of the joys of my life right now is teaching my last teenager how to drive. In case you’ve forgotten, when someone is first learning to drive, it’s all about the mechanics (smooth acceleration, braking, maintaining the lane, and handling turns). While the budding driver may think these driving basics are easy, she will soon discover there is more to driving, from anticipating patterns to predicting what other drivers are going to do.

project management long game

At this point, my daughter has learned to manage her speed and anticipate what’s happening in front of her. But she’ll also soon learn that you don’t just pay attention to the car directly in front of you. You pay attention to what is going on all around you.

Of course, this strategy is not just reserved for driving. In the world of project management, it’s important to allocate some attention to the project that’s off in the distance. This is the long game of project management, and it can pay big dividends for the project manager who invests the time to do it.

Playing the long game—i.e., stepping away from the barrage of tasks and people to take a look at how the project itself is being managed—is akin to changing the zoom on a camera lens. It’s important to pan out from your immediate subject in order to take in a wider view to incorporate context and environment. When you get too close to things, you can be a bit like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address who asks another fish “how’s the water?” and the second fish responds “what’s water?” If you don’t deliberately pay attention to your surroundings, you generally accept them and take them for granted.

So the more conscious you are of your project environment (often referred to as the project context), the more you can influence it. Things such as organizational support, your PMO, professional development opportunities, team reporting structure, your methodology, and the company policy are not things you have to silently accept. If you think some of these larger aspects of the project environment need to change, well, advocate for change. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see.”

And there’s no better time to be the change than before your next project begins. With that in mind, here are three techniques to help you evaluate and improve your own project context—and your the long game.

1. Look at how other organizations do it.

All organizations approach and manage projects differently. Learning from others’ best practices and implementing them in your organization is far better than trying to figure out everything on your own.

As an example, I have a stake in an event rental company in Atlanta, Georgia, where we’re constantly trying to improve efficiencies and performance for setting up large pieces of equipment. As part of our training, we watch Formula 1 crews at pit stops. Now, setting up a giant tent at a car race has some marked differences from servicing one of these amazing machines, but there are more similarities than you might think. For example, it’s inspired to use more specialists and fewer generalists; to cut down on unnecessary movement, and to measure and time everything. As a result, our setup time has decreased sharply.

One of the ways we do this in project management is by having many employees mentored by people outside our company whenever possible. It’s a great way to bring in fresh ideas and perspectives to our challenges and problems.

2. Measure, measure, and then measure a little more.

Nothing speaks louder than data, and nothing works better than data to help expose issues with your project environment. Project managers know that what gets measured gets done, so what exactly should project managers measure?

One of the simplest places to start is to have your team members estimate how they’ll use their time on the front end, and then have them track their actual time against those estimates. It’s not that big of a burden—people who bill by the hour usually do this anyway, but the project manager can carry it a step further by measuring and reporting her performance against her estimates. Many Agile practitioners post these reports publicly to encourage people to work towards greater efficiency.

Earned value is another important measure that often gets overlooked due to its (mostly undeserved) reputation for being cumbersome and difficult. By tracking a few key earned value measures, such as the Schedule Performance Index (SPI) and Cost Performance Index (CPI), you can get an excellent triangulation of how the project is performing against scope, schedule and cost.

Figuring out the right metrics to track and how to track them is a very worthwhile goal for project managers—particularly those who are trying to improve their environment.

3. Build infrastructure.

Project infrastructure is a major part of our project environment, and everyone who works around me knows that I am a believer in project infrastructure. By this I mean that I believe in systems, processes, and tools that will automate or ease some of the painstaking tasks of managing a project. Sometimes lo-tech solutions are fine, such as a deck of planning poker cards to assist in estimating. Other times, enterprise technology tools are needed to facilitate roll-up reporting from a distributed team.

The key here is to get just the right amount of process into place (I love the Agile philosophy of “barely sufficient”). This way, you don’t burden the team with pointless meetings or heavy documentation tasks that are not essential to the project’s success.

Infrastructure that helps guide the team and makes redundant tasks easier will pay off virtually every time in the long run.

Looking forward with a broad lens

Occasionally, the best thing a project manager can do is to look around and ask, “How’s the water?” Taking a critical look at the project structure is the first step in making things better. Start small, and ask the critical questions about what changes would be helpful for the project, the team, and the organization.

The project management long game isn’t always the easiest thing to pay attention to when project fires are burning; but it’s one of the best ways to affect real, lasting change for the projects that haven’t yet taken place.

Tell us about your long game—what’s your first rule of play?


Related stories:
5 Methods of Project Estimation
6 Essential Project Management Skills They Don’t Teach in School
13 Reasons Why Teams Are Using Agile Project Management

4 Ways to Be a More Responsive and Less Reactive Project Manager

project manager

One of the best things about my job is that I travel around the world working with project managers. This has taught me something:

Managing projects is not the easiest way to make a living.

Project managers easily get caught up in the demands of the team, senior managers, stakeholders, the customer—and then find it impossible to keep all of the plates spinning and everyone happy.

Here’s something that gets project managers into trouble:

In the effort to be highly responsive to all of these people they’re trying to make happy, project managers often cross the line into reactive mode.

Being responsive is good. It means you’re tuned in to the needs of the stakeholders. You can anticipate what’s coming down the line and respond accordingly.

Being reactive is not so good. It means you’re letting someone else dictate your priorities. There are unanticipated surprises and you’re putting out fires.

The real problem with being reactive is once you’ve gone there, it’s difficult to hop off of that hamster wheel. But you can!

Here are four ways to become a more responsive project manager—and shed some reactive habits. Even if you only implement just one of these tips, it can have a dramatic impact on your project and your life.

  1. Filter out the noise

At the risk of sounding like I’m from another planet, those instant notifications on your devices and desktops are not your friend. They give you the quick sugar-rush of micro productivity, but distract from our ability to get into a truly productive workflow.

My personal productivity skyrocketed when I started working two full hours before opening email each day. While it may sound crazy, you may find that it is not as difficult as it sounds.

Instant notifications (aka, “instant distractions”) put us squarely in the reactive camp. They break our concentration, and they let someone commandeer our attention at any time. And this is really only one small part of how we’re reactive across the board. We sit in meetings and get updates from our team (reactive). We reply to emails from our boss and stakeholders (reactive). We fall behind on schedule, and we struggle to catch up (reactive).

Beware the tyranny of the urgent

All of this gets into what Stephen Covey referred to as “the tyranny of the urgent.” These are the activities and tasks that are of low importance but that compete loudly for our attention. As many of us have discovered, if we don’t move beyond the urgent, we never seem to make it to the really important tasks.

Email can be one of the most “urgent” tools we use, but the phone gives it a close run for its money. Project managers want to seem responsive, so when the phone rings, we jump on it. When an email comes in, we drop what we’re doing to reply. As if that wasn’t enough, a little email preview box slides up seductively from the corner of the screen so we can divert our attention to the email right away.

These things are responsible for breaking our concentration and momentum and keeping us perpetually hopping from one crisis to another.

Project management is supposed to be a discipline of planning, executing, measuring and adjusting, but when we get behind the curve and become perpetually distracted, the job devolves into one massive daily game of whack-a-mole.

Silencing as many of these notifications as you can, especially for a dedicated period of time each day, will help you determine what’s truly important, rather than falling prey to letting email or the phone make that call for you.

Email distraction for project managers
  1. Implement a basic methodology

A good methodology guides you in what to do next. It prescribes rather than dictates, and the reason it’s so important is that there are things you likely need to be doing that you don’t get around to. These tasks don’t seem that urgent—until they do, and it’s too late. In the early 2000’s I implemented the Rational Unified Process at an organization, and it had a transformative impact. At another organization I developed a custom systems development lifecycle methodology (SDLC), which also proved to be a great help.

The right methodology should make your job easier. Having a process will help guide you on how to do the difficult tasks the right way, as well as guide you to spend time on the more impactful tasks.

Think of it this way: Only a small fraction of workers save for retirement in their twenties. There are simply too many other “urgent” priorities at that time; however, the ones who save when they’re young are universally better off when they approach retirement.

Along these same lines, most project managers whistle past the graveyard when it comes to risk, paying very little attention to it after the initial project plan is done—until a risk event occurs. At that point, all available energy is consumed handling something that probably could have been avoided.

This is where the right methodology can help you be proactive rather than reactive. You don’t want a methodology that necessarily dictates every next move for you. Instead, implement one that guides you and gives you templates and helpful instructions. The right one, whether waterfall or Agile will make your life much easier. The right project management software can help instill a methodology too.

  1. Use your time purposefully


    Be a productive project manager

After you’ve silenced (or at least diminished) the ever-present cacophony of chirps, dings, and buzzes, and you’ve implemented a basic methodology, take advantage of your best tool: time.

Here’s one practice to help you be less reactive: Make a to-do list for the week early on Monday morning (or whenever your work week begins). Then break this down into daily lists. In other words, plan out the desired milestones and deliverables a week in advance. And prioritize them.

This seems so simple, but it can be one of the most profoundly ways to make the most of your time. So, make a wish list of what you want to accomplish in a week and post it to your wall or somewhere visible. When you begin work each day, it will be right there in front of you. Award yourself serious bonus points if you arrange it so that you look at that list before you look at your email or phone each morning.

  1. Allocate time to strategy

Becoming less reactive requires you to step back from the details on occasion. To do this, block time off your calendar to work on the strategic elements of your project. This means not being available for meetings or responding to emails, texts, etc. Sometimes, you simply have to make yourself uninterruptible. If you don’t, then it’s a near mathematical certainty that you will be interrupted. In fact, the larger the organization you work for, the more likely you are to end up trapped in a meeting or on a conference call.

For organizations that are highly meeting-centric, this becomes even more important.

If you manage an active project, I recommend that you carve out 45 – 60 minutes per week of undiluted time to take a strategic look at your project. Pick a time where you experience the fewest interruptions, and leverage that. Use this time to evaluate the activities you and your team are doing, and how they’re being executed. Then you can look to the future and plan it.

Give us your best responsive-not-reactive tactic.

Time illustraction by Nadya Ilinskaya

Related stories:

Using the 5 Whys in Project Management
5 Important Lessons on Taming and Managing Project Scope
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