Author: Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin writes the blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. Find out more about the coaching she offers to project professionals on her website.

Ask a PM: How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project?

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!

What Project Managers Need to Know about GDPR (Even If You Don’t Work in Europe)—Part Two

In the first part of this series on the General Data Protection Regulation, I discussed how GDPR provides for one set of data protection rules for companies operating within the European Union so people have more control over their personal data and what happens to it. I also discussed how GDPR affects businesses outside the EU. In this article, we’ll detail how GDPR affects us as project managers.

Whether or not GDPR applies to you and your projects, it doesn’t hurt to follow good data protection principles for all the projects that you do. A sensible starting point is to think about the types of data being used on your project and what you use it for.

Data Processing

Think about what customer, supplier, or staff personal data your project uses. If you are managing any kind of project that has an IT element, from a door security system that records people entering and leaving to a new app, the project probably touches personal data.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it data that relates to and identifies a person, like their name, address, social security number or biometric data?
  • Is it necessary to capture and store the data?
  • How will you keep it safe?
  • How will you make sure people can get copies of it if they want to?
  • Can it be extracted and transferred to another system if someone needs to do that?
  • Are you giving people the option to consent to how their data is used where appropriate, and the option to opt out?

Because consent to processing is such a huge topic, I think it warrants a little more explanation.

You would need to process someone’s data for a number of reasons, and “because they consented” is only one of them. GDPR doesn’t expect you to get explicit consent to take credit card details when someone is buying something from you, for example. If you had to ask every customer for explicit permission at the cash register, you’d be there all day and customers would get annoyed. You need to process their credit card data in order to fulfill their purchase.

GDPR sets out a number of reasons when it is OK to process data (and consent from the individual is one). That’s why one of the key things for businesses is to know why they need the information, so they can justify the reason for having it.

Does this sound like a headache? A lot of upfront work is involved in finding and documenting exactly what data your business has overall, but at a project level, this isn’t a difficult job. The data being processed should be recorded in your project requirements anyway.

Data Retention

You now know what personal data is used and why it is used.

The next data challenge for your project is to think about what happens when you don’t need the data any longer. Has your project already covered data destruction? Or are you simply building a massive database that is going to fill up over time with no end in sight?

GDPR challenges us to specify when data is no longer required. Your business will set these timelines. As a project manager, your job is to build in a mechanism to delete data when it’s no longer needed. That might be, as in the case of LiquidPlanner, when the customer is no longer a customer.

Whether GDPR applies to you or not, it’s good data housekeeping to think about how you are going to get rid of it. Data storage might be cheap, but it’s cheaper and less risky to not have a massive amount of unnecessary data.

Create tasks in your work breakdown structure and project schedule to build in the ability to delete data when it’s no longer needed. This could easily form part of the standard nonfunctional project requirements for any project.

Legislation Challenges

One of the difficult things about implementing GDPR in any business is that it doesn’t stand alone. Other pieces of regulation also apply and overlap in some cases, such as the Privacy and Electronic Communications regulations, guidance on the use of CCTV, and probably a host of other guidelines and laws.

Always take advice from your legal team. There might be nothing extra for you to do, but it’s better to check than to work on your project for several months before you realize you need to add in new features for compliance reasons.

An individual’s personal data is a huge asset to companies and can be a definite benefit when thinking about what new products to design or what processes to improve. However, we need to be careful with the data people entrust to us in business.

Data protection will become even more entwined into the fabric of how we manage projects than it is currently. Start thinking about security now, and you’ll keep your company out of the headlines and your customers happy.

Note: Elizabeth Harrin is not a lawyer, and this article is not legal advice.

What Project Managers Need to Know about GDPR (Even If You Don’t Work in Europe)

It seems like every week a company is in the news for misusing data. Whether it’s concern with how our data is being used by marketing firms or about companies “losing” thousands of credit card records to a hacker, data is regularly making the news—and not in a good way.

Amongst all the database dramas and security scandals is a set of standards that goes some way to help, and project managers who work with individuals’ personal data as part of their projects should be taking notice.

What standards am I talking about? If you are based in the European Union, you won’t have missed the flurry of activity in the spring as companies got ready to implement changes to bring those standards in. I’m talking about GDPR.

What Is GDPR?

GDPR stands for the General Data Protection Regulation. It’s a once-in-a-generation sweep up of data privacy standards.

GDPR provides for one set of data protection rules for companies operating within the European Union. It harmonizes data protection laws across EU states. The main benefit is that people have more control over their personal data and what happens to it.

The regulation came into force on 25 May 2018.

So, It’s A European Thing?

Yes and no.

EU citizens are covered by GDPR, or rather, the legislation in their countries that brings GDPR into law. In the UK, for example, it is the Data Protection Act 2018 that enshrines the GDPR principles into law.

GDPR has been a big thing in Europe, but it also affects companies outside of the EU that have an international customer base that includes European citizens. If you store or process the data of EU individuals, GDPR will apply to you.

But I Don’t Work with Europe

Even if you don’t work with customers or staff in an EU country today, your next project might need to recruit subject matter expertise from European countries—and those new staff members would expect to have their employee or contractor data relating to their employment processed in a compliant way.

Your next project might need you to work with a supplier who is based in the EU or to launch an internet service that will be open to everyone from any country. With the internet in mind, does your business have a website with a “Contact Us” form? And can people from Europe put their details in? if so, then GDPR applies to you.

Let’s assume that you are a project manager for a brick and mortar business with zero web presence and a very local customer and employee community. GDPR is only about keeping personal data safe. While those data protection principles might not yet be enacted in your local laws, I think we can assume that many other countries will actively choose more data safeguarding in time.

The GDPR Headlines

The main headline from GDPR is transparency. Companies need to be explicit about why they are storing and processing your data and what they use it for. If they haven’t got the right to contact you for a relevant purpose, then they shouldn’t be contacting you. That includes not sending you unsolicited marketing emails to your personal email address.

Companies shouldn’t collect more information than they need to fulfill their purpose. Your project should only collect the data required for the task, whether that’s fulfilling an order or dealing with a complaint. If you are building a new online form to take nail salon bookings, you shouldn’t be asking customers to enter their favorite food unless you are going to give them that food during their appointment.

It should also be easy to opt out and get copies of whatever data a company holds on you.

GDPR makes it possible for people to move their data between companies. For example, if you had a no claims discount on your car insurance, you could move your complete car insurance history from one provider to another, in the hope that they would take your prior driving experience into account.

GDPR is a wide-ranging piece of regulation that affects many elements of how data is kept and used, and how companies need to share information with you about that. Check out what your government regulator has to say about applying the standards, or for good quality information in English, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office is a solid place to start.

The prediction is that GDPR-style data privacy will be debated by lawmakers around the world. These regulations, or something very similar, could soon be coming to your country.

Note: Elizabeth Harrin is not a lawyer, and this article is not legal advice.

Want to know more about how GDPR affects project managers? Read Part Two now.

Ask a PM: How to Get Proper Estimates

Dear Elizabeth: I work in a technical team as a project manager. We do a lot of projects that are innovative (for us), and my development colleagues always seem reluctant when it comes to project planning. They won’t give me timescales that will help me plan. How do you deal with a team that refuses to estimate how long tasks will take? I’m getting tired of hearing, “It depends.”

It depends on what?

Estimating can be done in several solid ways, and frankly, it sounds as if your colleagues don’t know how to estimate properly or are scared to give you the timescales that pop into their heads.

However, if you tell them that, they probably won’t want to work with you again, so let’s take a gentler approach to help them give you the information you need for the project planning. Below, I’ll give you some suggestions to try. They might not all work for this particular team, but hopefully, something will resonate with one or more of your colleagues. Then, they can start to give you something useful.

Break Down the Work

It is difficult to estimate when the task is too big. What does your work breakdown structure look like? If the tasks are too chunky, it will be too challenging to come up with anything like a realistic estimate. Can you break the work down even further?

You might not need to document this granularity on your work breakdown structure, but your team could go through the exercise to split out tasks into their component parts. Then, they can use bottom-up estimating as a way to create a more realistic estimate for the work.

Remove the Uncertainty

I agree that it’s hard to estimate with any accuracy if you haven’t done the work before. However, in most tasks, there is something you have done before or done in a similar enough way to give you grounds for a reasonable estimate.

For example, let’s say you were asking the team to build fingerprint recognition to log in to your latest mobile app for a client. You’ve never done this before. But, you have done the following:

  • Put together requirements—you can estimate that part.
  • Built the behind-the-scenes login features—you can estimate that part.
  • Tested new features before—you can estimate that part.
  • Gone through the release process—you can estimate that part.

All the stuff that you have done before can be estimated. Yes, it depends on who gets the job and how the previous tasks have gone and how many bugs you find, but even if they are guessing, they should be able to come up with something.

For the part that is truly unknown, try to relate it to something else they have done in the past—preferably something that was also truly unknown at the time. Ask them about a time that they had to build something else brand new and how long that took. Ask what challenges they faced and what contingency time they had. Use that discussion as a starting point for them to come up with estimates for this piece of work.

Using the data from previous projects to estimate timescales on your current project is called parametric estimating (and it’s my favorite way to estimate).

Where you can’t remove the uncertainty, add this as a risk to your project risk register. It helps raise the visibility of the problem and makes sure it is on the radar for some active management.

Let Them Use Predictive Scheduling

Teams often get hung up on the fact that project managers ask them to estimate to a fixed point. They think you want to hear 52 hours or 6 days. You don’t need this level of precision to be able to build out a plan.

Use project management software with predictive scheduling and give them a bit of wiggle room in the estimates. Use the three-point estimating technique to establish a range of most likely and least likely durations for the work. Then, use intelligent scheduling tools like LiquidPlanner to plug all that into your plan.

When people understand that they aren’t going to be fired for getting the estimate wrong by a few hours, they are more likely to give you something rather than nothing.

Pack In Some Contingency

Another way to help teams feel more confident about their estimating is to explain the principle of contingency. If you have done similar projects before, you’re likely to be able to estimate with a degree of certainty because you are repeating something you’ve already achieved. You don’t need as much (if any) contingency because you already have a good idea of how long the work will take based on last time.

If the work is unique and innovative, your appetite for contingency is likely to be higher. In other words, you want to include a time buffer that allows for your estimates to be wrong by a margin that relates to the riskiness of the project.

You can add contingency at the level of a task or phase or the project overall. Don’t add it to all three steps or your schedule will be bloated. It might be appropriate to add a lot of contingency to the uncertain tasks and less to the stuff you know how to do.

Tell your team this. Let them help you decide what contingency margin you should be adding to the project, and then go and negotiate that with your sponsor.

Contingency works for budgeting too. If you add in contingency for time, don’t forget to adjust your project budget contingency to make sure that if you do run into contingency time, you’ve got the budget to pay for it.

Build Trust

In my experience, people are reluctant to provide estimates when they think they are going to be held to them, and they expect that to reflect negatively on them. They would rather provide nothing because then they can’t be accused of getting it wrong.

This level of fear about how the data is going to be used is unhelpful for everyone. The more you can do to build trust in the team, the better. They need to know that you aren’t going to blame the whole project delay on them if they overlook something and the project slips by a week.

Note that this shouldn’t be an invitation for them to just guess at the first thing that pops into their head or do sloppy estimating. Assuming they can “show their working,” let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

You can also build trust by implementing proper change management and risk management processes. Document your decisions. Explain to the client and project sponsor why timescales might change, and then let them know early when they do. The more your team sees you do this, with transparency and honesty, the more likely they will be to trust you with the data.

The next time someone on your project team tells you they can’t estimate because it depends, ask them genuinely, “On what?” Then, work with them to unpick those problems, add them to the risk register, plan out what they can, add in contingency, and come up with something you can use to create a schedule based on a ranged estimate.

Then, monitor the work and tweak the estimate as you go forward—trust me, it will be useful to have a record of the length of time the work actually took for the next time you do something similar!

Ask a PM: How to Manage Dependencies and Assess Risks

Dear Elizabeth: The project I am working on is quite complex. Our work overlaps with that of other teams, plus there are a few things in the business that might have an impact on what we are doing. Some of these dependencies might have significant impacts on the project. How do you recommend managing dependencies that put the project at risk?

First, have a virtual high five for identifying that you’ve got dependencies on your project that could cause a problem. Knowing they are there is the first step to being able to manage them!

For the benefit of readers who haven’t come across the term before, a dependency is the relationship that defines the order in which tasks are carried out. Task A is dependent on Task B if the start or finish date of Task B must be reached before Task A can be started.

It’s less complicated than it sounds!

There are a few things to do here to make sure that you can adequately manage the impact of dependencies.

1. Identify the Types of Dependencies.

Let’s start by identifying the types of dependencies you have on the project. That will give us a head start at looking at how they can be best managed.

There are several different ways of thinking about dependencies. The easiest way, and the way most scheduling software works, is to think of the impact on your timeline.

Tasks can link to each other in four common ways:

  1. Start to Start: The start of one task links to the start of another task; i.e., both tasks start at the same time.
  2. Finish to Finish: The end of one task links to the end of another task; i.e., both tasks finish at the same time.
  3. Finish to Start: The end of one task links to the start of another task; i.e., the tasks happen one after the other in a sequence.
  4. Start to Finish: The start of one task links to the end of another task; i.e., the first task must start before the other task can finish.

You can set these types of dependencies within your project management software.

However, these sequential, task-based types of dependencies are not the things that will derail your project. You can use the same types of dependencies on your schedule to record things that might influence the project from the outside.

For example, create a milestone for a task that has to be finished on another project and link it with the correct dependency type to the relevant task on your own schedule. You don’t want the other team’s complete plan in your plan, but dropping in a key milestone is enough to flag up that there is something external that has the possibility of affecting your timeline.

That brings us to the next way of categorizing dependencies, which is more useful for the kinds of things that could be risky for the project.

Dependencies can relate to the Project or the Company and can be “In” or “Out.” The table below explains more.

It’s the dependencies that are out of the project and fall into the Company category that have the greatest possibility of presenting a risk to your work. These are things that are not in your control and that you are unable to fully influence yourself.

2. Consider the Risks.

Now that you know what your dependencies are and the areas that they affect, you need to consider the risks they present to the project.

You already have tool to do that: your risks log.

Look at each dependency and work out what their risks would be.

For example, if you were building an app for a client, you might be reliant on another project’s completion in order to reuse the specialist code they were creating. In this situation, there is a risk that their work doesn’t finish on time or that the code isn’t reusable after all and you have to start from scratch (adding time and cost to your project).

Go through the risks assessment process like you would normally do. Add the risks to your risk management software. Allocate them an owner and choose what you are going to do to manage the risks.

This gives you transparency and a decent record of what you are going to do about the potential problems.

Personally, if the risks are things that relate to what another team is doing, I would want to keep an eye on them myself as the project manager, even if someone else was named as the risk owner. These kinds of dependency-driven risks are very important to manage.

So, how do you manage them?

3. Talk to Your Colleagues.

The biggest single thing you can do to help address the risks caused by dependencies is to talk to people.

When your project relies on someone outside the project doing something, or telling you something, go talk to them. Let them know that your project is dependent on something they are doing. They might not have a clue that their work is going to affect yours. Tell them what their actions mean to you and why you care about how their work is going.

As you all work in the same business, let’s hope that your strategic goals are all aligned. There is no reason why they shouldn’t want to help you out through good communication and collaboration. Keep them updated with what’s happening on your project and ask them to do the same for you. Together, you should be able to manage the flow of information back and forth to keep both projects working smoothly.

If the dependency relates to something a third party is doing for you, such as an agency delivering wireframes, then the talking principle still applies! Check in with them regularly. Talk to your counterpart in your company who works with the agency regularly, so they understand the impact of any delays.

When Risks Become Issues

The great thing about taking your dependencies and managing them as risks is that you are actively working to stop them becoming problems for your project. However, if they do become problems, you already have a way of dealing with them. They become project issues. You may need to change something to accommodate the new problems, but between your issue management and change management processes you’ll be able to come up with a new plan to address the situation.

You’ve taken all the right steps to raise awareness of the dependency and what needs to be done so it doesn’t become a problem, so fingers crossed that your project will proceed without a hitch.

The PM Skills You Can Forget About (And the Ones You Really Need to Know)

What are the project management skills that you really need to focus on today?

I hear from project managers every week who aren’t sure what skills they should be building on. So much of what you might have read about online or in project management books, or even be taught on training courses, is simply not aligned the skills we need to use every day.

The way we do project management has evolved. We have better technology, broader job roles, and flatter organization structures. The last 15 years has seen huge changes in business models. We need to make sure that the skills we spend our valuable training dollars on are the right ones.

That’s not to say that project management training is pointless. Courses, coaches, blogs, and websites try to give us a rounded view of what project managers need, and some skills and tools do still have value in some situations. But if you aren’t in those situations, personally, I wouldn’t waste time developing my abilities in those areas.

So what processes and techniques will catapult your career and what are the areas that you can… overlook?

In this article I’ll look at 5 project management techniques, processes and skills that you will no doubt have heard mentioned time and time again. I’ll give you my view on whether it is something worth spending your time on so you can best develop your professional skills in the direction that makes most sense for you.

1. Critical Path Analysis

I remember learning how to calculate the project’s critical path by hand using forward pass and backward pass calculations. And that was on a training course quite recently.

However, in real life, I have never known a project manager to work any of that stuff out with a pen and paper. It’s not practical. Today, our project schedules can run to hundreds of lines, if not thousands. Manually being able to calculate your critical path would take so long that your schedule would be out of date before you’d finished.

Having said that, the critical path itself is a very useful tool on projects. It shows the links between the tasks with no float, or ability to slip, so it’s the shortest possible time the project can be completed in.

I get that learning the math behind the critical path can help you understand what you are seeing. Project management software can work out the critical path efficiently, and keep it up to date when tasks change. You should know how to make the software show you the critical path, what the critical path is and how you can use it, but it isn’t important to be able to do the math yourself.

Verdict:

No requirement to know how to calculate it manually, but you must understand what a critical path is and how to use it on your project.

2. Stakeholder Management

All projects involve working with people. Those people have opinions on what should be done, how it should be done, and what the deliverables from the project should be. Those people are your stakeholders.

In project-land today, we seem to have more stakeholders on projects than in the past. Perhaps it is because we have a better understanding of who is affected by a project. But I think it’s more likely to be that business systems today are far more integrated, lean and systemized than ever before. The pace of change remains fast, and that means we’re working with stakeholders on a compressed schedule.

The work we do touches more people and has more impact.

Because of that, stakeholder management has evolved somewhat. Today, you’re more likely to hear people in project management circles refer to it as stakeholder engagement. We’ve moved on from the idea that a few impact and influence grids can actively manage other people’s behavior.

The model of working with stakeholders today is more around how we engage people to support the project’s goals and use influencing, negotiating, teamwork and conflict management to effectively get work done through others.

Whatever you want to call it, the whole process is still important for the successful delivery of projects.

Verdict:

Essential

3. Technical Literacy

What? This isn’t a project management skill? Well, it should be. More and more of our tools and processes are being run via online or on-premise enterprise project management solutions. We have to integrate with data warehouses. We run complex analytics on our projects (or would like to). There are dashboards to interpret. If you don’t have the basic, and slightly more advanced skills in using computers to get at this data, you will soon fall behind.

Not knowing how your tech works is a surefire way to be the least productive and successful member for the team.

Verdict:

Essential

4. Earned Value Analysis

Earned Value Analysis (EVA) is a way of measuring a project’s progress and performance against time and budget targets. It is known as a hugely powerful tool, but one that takes some set up. You need accurate data in to get useful results out, and interpreting the data involves a learning curve.

It’s considered an advanced technique in many project management circles and there are millions of projects run successfully around the world without it. However, some construction, industrial, and government projects especially in, for example, the defense industry, wouldn’t be able to function without the governance and oversight that EVA provides.

Verdict:

The jury is still out! Depends on your industry and the types of project you do.

5. Resource Leveling

Resource leveling is the process of making sure that your project resources are not overstretched with work. For example, an individual can’t physically take on 3 tasks, each of 8 hours, on the same day, just because you’ve popped those figures into your project schedule. They will need 3 days to do the work.

That’s a relatively straightforward example, but when you are balancing multiple projects, multiple team members, multiple tasks and priorities that always seem to shift about, getting your resources used optimally can be a challenge.

It’s so important to get this right because underutilized team members are a drain on your resources: your business is more profitable and efficient if they are being used on project work. And over-utilized resources burn out.

These days, intelligent project management tools incorporate resource leveling capabilities into the system, so tasks are automatically balanced as they are assigned to each team member. In LiquidPlanner, priorities are automatically taken into account

Verdict:

No requirement to know how to work it out, but you must understand how to interpret your project management resource reports to act on the data and make changes accordingly.

Will a Project Management Certification Help Your Career?

Let’s say you’re well-qualified in your technical skills—be it Java, programming languages, infrastructure, networks or system administration. Qualifications take time and effort, but as well as learning useful skills, you’re also building confidence—your own and the others’ confidence in your ability to do a great job.

But what if you’re switching from a purely technical role to one that involves managing projects?

Or, having managed IT projects for a while, what if you want to formalize your experience with a relevant project qualification?

The Certification Option

There’s a fair amount of choice when it comes to project management credentials. The big one that you’ll hear mentioned again and again is the Project Management Professional®, otherwise known as the PMP. It’s the de facto standard for many U.S.-based businesses and it’s also highly sought after around the world.

However, it is worth researching other choices. The project management professional body in your country will have qualifications they can offer, normally at different points on the career path so you can choose something that suits your level of experience.

Related: 44 Resources for New and Experienced Project Managers

There are also courses run by training companies that will give you a certificate, or you could go the whole way and sign up for a Masters in Project Management at one of the top business schools. All these routes involve some degree of commitment and cost from you and your company.

The main question to ask yourself is: Will it be worth it? Here are some things to consider while you’re working that out.

Does My Boss Require It?

This question doesn’t necessarily apply to your current manager; but consider the manager who will be hiring you for the next job in your career progression. If having the letters PMP after your name is going to open doors and get you a great new IT leadership job, then certification makes perfect sense.

However, careers typically aren’t that straightforward. Just having a project management certificate doesn’t always make you a whole lot more hireable than the last candidate the manager saw. You will get your next job through a combination of being a good fit for the team, technical expertise, qualifications and, most likely, luck.

Does My Job Require It?

Are you managing the kind of large projects that demand that you put professional processes and documentation into action? Or, it is more important that you have an effective working relationship with your team and good organizational skills?

Some technical jobs do involve managing large pieces of work—whether you’re a project management professional or an IT professional who manages projects. Knowing how to plan, manage and monitor progress is important and can make the difference between meeting your goals for the year and not.

Related: 6 Top PM Books for Engineers and Manufacturers

Project management skills will certainly improve your ability to hit deadlines, but you can get them without having the certificate. The answer to this question might reside in whether or not you feel like you have the skills and know-how at your disposal to get the job done and keep progressing in your career goals.

Who’s Paying for It?

If your company is footing the bill and giving you a study leave to take the exam, then I would definitely advise going for it. If you have to fund it yourself and use up your annual vacation allowance to attend the exam, then you need to come to terms with that and have confidence that the end result is going to help your career.

Remember to factor in the cost of the training, the exam fee, travel to the exam center, and any books or study materials you need. Then, if you have taken a credential offered by a professional body you might want to pay for membership, or be required to do ongoing continuous professional development. PMI requires this for PMP holders through their Continuing Certification Requirements Program and you could easily find yourself paying for additional courses and materials to keep up.

There are ways to continue your professional development at low or zero cost but you have to spend time and energy seeking them out. In the end, you’ll make the investment that feels right for you and your career goals.

What Benefits Will I See?

This depends what you’re looking for. For me, the benefits of getting qualified in project management were being taken seriously by my peers and colleagues. It formalized and ratified my experience, and because I don’t have any other business qualifications, and yet work with people who have PhDs and degrees from business schools, it gave me a much-needed confidence boost.

Going through the process to become a Fellow of APM in the U.K. was a great learning opportunity as well. Not only was the application process rigorous, but I had to prepare a detailed portfolio of the projects I had worked on and the contribution I had made to my company and the profession. That was an eye-opener, to look back and see what I had achieved.

Related: Solving the Top 9 PM Challenges

I remember a huge light bulb going on when I was learning about blueprinting on a program management certification prep course. The approach to planning ahead, creating a vision and knowing more or less where you were going made perfect sense; it was a practical tool that I could put into use as soon as I got back to the office.

Credentials Were Worth It for Me

So choosing a qualification and preparing for your exam will let you reflect on your professional career to date and help you learn new tools and techniques. Plus you’ll understand more of the jargon related to project management which will let you communicate more effectively and be the bridge between the technical teams and others in the company who don’t have the same IT background.

I found having my credentials extremely worthwhile. But before taking them on, I weighed up all the questions above, and also, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel my project management qualifications have definitely helped my career in multiple ways.

Of Course, Everyone is Different

I can’t say whether you personally will find having a project management certification worth it. But in a competitive marketplace, with the pressure for IT teams to be innovative but with fewer resources and more time pressures, it certainly isn’t going to hurt your career path in any way.

Here’s something that will help your career whether you have a PMP or not: knowing how to estimate projects with accuracy, and seeing the risks arise before it’s too late. To learn more about how to master the Art of Estimation, download our eBook, “6 Best Practices for Accurate Project Estimates.” 
Six best practices for project estimation

Ask a PM: How to Prioritize When You Wear Multiple Hats

Dear Elizabeth: I am a project manager for a company that builds education software. I am also the Operations Director, Customer Services Manager…you name it, I’m getting involved with it. The company is in startup mode. We’re doing everything fresh, and there is a lot of document creation and defining processes. On top of that, we’re constantly developing new offerings, onboarding new employees, pitching for work, and more.

At any given point, I am attempting to manage about 10 projects in various phases. I am overwhelmed and feel close to burnt out. Also, I am spending my time working on urgent items and important items are falling behind. I think I need a voice of experience to help me figure out where my attention should be focused. Can you help?

I think this question is applicable to many people, especially in the tech arena. So many of us are trying to juggle multiple responsibilities and job roles. These days, no one seems to wear just the one hat. We’re all pitching in to get work done. I imagine that’s even more acute in your startup situation.

So what can you do?

First, self-care.

Crush the Overwhelm

You can’t look out for your team or grow your business if you’re burning out. The fact you say you are overwhelmed is bothering me. You’ll struggle to do your best if you aren’t looking after yourself.

The normal advice here would be to book breaks in your day, cut back on caffeine, get good sleep, exercise, don’t drink alcohol to excess, and up your water intake. These are all good self-care tips that I’m sure you’ve seen before.

But they aren’t what I do when I feel overwhelmed because frankly, who’s got time for all that when the To Do list is a mile long?

The thing that makes me feel better is to get on top of my overwhelm.

When I’ve got my tasks under control, I can spend more time on taking a brief walk at lunchtime.

Here’s how I do it.

I book time in my schedule to go through what’s on my work list. Sometimes it’s a whole day; sometimes a couple of hours. Get somewhere to work that is away from interruptions, but if you need to let important people know where you are, that’s fine. Ideally, no phone calls, no emails, and definitely no social media in that time.

Related: 6 Tips for Managing an Overwhelming Workload

I make a giant To Do list. Often, I categorize the To Do list with a page in my notebook per major activity. Right now, I’d have a page for my two large projects, and then a page for other smaller projects. I’d also have a list specifically for “personal” tasks like updating my annual objectives, filling in expense claims, that kind of stuff.

I prefer to write the tasks on paper and then transcribe into a software tool for managing work, but if you prefer to type directly into a tool, go for it.

In your case, I’d simply list each of the 10 projects. I wouldn’t list every task on each project, but if there are urgent or extremely important tasks happening on some of them, you could add those.

While you are at it, add in all the activities that you have on your mind about outside of work too. Birthday presents to buy, chores to do for elderly relatives, tradespeople to organize – these are all things that fill your head and add to the overwhelm.

Next, prioritize ruthlessly. Delegate as much as you can. If someone hasn’t chased up a task for a fortnight, consider if it really needs to be done right now. Postpone what’s not important. Think about what tasks you can group together. Can you do all your calls at one time? Do you have a bunch of reports to write? What meetings can you skip, or do as a conference call so you don’t have to waste time traveling?

Related: 9 Tips to Become a More Effective Delegator

There will be way too many tasks on your list to give you comfort, but hopefully you can start to see the patterns in the work. The big jobs will start to drop out.

Finally, plan your time. Book time in your calendar to do the tasks on the list. Literally put the work into the days that you have. If you think it’s going to take an hour to write a report, book it in the diary.

I set objectives for every day so I know exactly how much I have to get through.

Find Your Focus

When everything is important, nothing is. You can’t do everything, so you have to prioritize.

Things that are important are tasks that help you meet your strategic objectives, so in your case, activities that support software development and sales. Important tasks include:

  • building relationships with customers
  • strategic planning
  • project work
  • supporting employees
  • creating a culture where people want to work.

Every day, leave some time for the urgent tasks. These are activities that may not be that important in the overall scheme of things, but are urgent and must be done right now.

Related: How to Get More Resources and Manage Project Chaos

Only ever schedule yourself or your team at 80 percent availability because you need to allow for urgent tasks, training and other non-billable, non-project hours in the day.

Urgent tasks include:

  • things your boss asks you to do right now
  • attending a meeting happening at short notice on a subject where you can add value
  • answering phone calls
  • some emails (It isn’t necessary to answer all emails within a few minutes of receipt.)

The tasks that should be at the top of your To Do list for any given day should be the urgent AND important tasks. Basically, these are the crises or disasters. The customer who hasn’t received what they should have received, the bug your team has just found that might delay the release–that kind of thing.

Limit Your Availability

Even if you get clarity on what it is you are trying to do, and prioritize your work, you’ve still got a lot on the go.

My top tip–and this is something I have only started doing recently–is to limit how long you spend on tasks. Work expands to fill the time, so set yourself realistic deadlines. Tell yourself that you only have half an hour to get the customer reports done, or 20 minutes to design the next step of the onboarding process for new starters.

Give yourself permission to do work at a C+ standard. Not every task has to be completed to an A+ standard. Some tasks just need to be done.

This has worked really well for me. I’m finding it easier to get work completed, and my work isn’t shoddy either. I think it’s simply having that focus and a deadline that means I am getting on with things in a more productive way.

Use Tools to Help

Finally, give yourself the environment to be successful. I know it feels like you don’t have an afternoon to spend setting up workflows in your project management software (perhaps it’s a task for your new employee then?). But once they are complete, you’ll save so much time.

Related: 6 Ways PM Tools Improve Collaboration

Automate as much as possible. Use tools to help team collaboration, version control, creating reports for clients and more. Dashboards show you the latest tasks for you and your team. Use software to your advantage and you’ll find that some of those tasks don’t take as long as you were expecting.

I hope that has given you some food for thought!

Ask a PM: I’m Bored! How Do I Convince My Boss I Can Handle More?

“Dear Elizabeth: I recently started a position as a project administrator. I am responsible for updating our systems, entering data, and submitting reports into a tool. I have met with my manager several times to see if I am missing something because once I’ve updated the metrics, there’s nothing else really to do. I don’t want it to look like I’m not working, but I’m at a loss of what I could be doing. And, she won’t give me anything extra.

I asked one of the project managers how could I help him and I was given a data-entry task. I know I can do more. Can you give me some suggestions for approaching this position?”

It’s not very often someone asks for advice for how to deal with not having enough to do! I do think this situation happens frequently though, especially in organizations where project management approaches are relatively immature. But it could happen in any job.

I have some ideas for how to fill up your day with value-adding work that uses your skills, and also some suggestions for tackling this proactively with your manager.

How to Fill Your Time Productively

You have asked for more work and haven’t been given anything—or at least, not been given anything that you feel is the right kind of task.

Has your company had project administrators before? In this role, I would expect you to be taking on the admin work, data entry, updating reports, logging changes, entering metrics, and so on. But, also, to be exposed to other areas of project management so that, in the longer term, you can take on small projects, and then larger projects.

Project admin positions should be a good stepping stone to a future career as a project manager.

What can you find to fill your time productively, in a way that supports your business and your career goals? Here are some suggestions.

Create work instructions: It sounds like your job includes regular, repetitive tasks. Create a set of work instructions (a standard operating procedure) for those tasks. Then, if you are ever away from the office, someone else will be able to pick up the work and complete it.

Ideally, you’d want to be handing these jobs on to another project administrator when you take your next career step. It will help you to have them already documented.

Review existing processes: Take a look at the processes you use regularly, or that are used by the project managers in the team. Can you improve them? Start by documenting exactly what happens and then look for areas of overlap, repetition, or delay.

Ask the question, “Why do we do it like that?” Every time you hear the answer, “I don’t know. That’s just the way it is,” question that step.

Volunteer to attend meetings: Invite yourself to meetings. Take minutes if no one else is—volunteering to do this is a surefire way of having someone say they are happy for you to tag along! Listen. This is a great way to find out more about the business and its goals.

Plus, you can volunteer for the actions that sound interesting. If a task comes up that is not really in your remit, and it’s allocated to someone else, offer to support them on it. Follow up afterwards and ask how you can help them achieve it.

Keep learning: If the company has online training programs, do them. Block out some time each week to work on your personal development.

Being successful in a project role involves being good at negotiating, communication, influencing as well as more technical skills like risk management and scheduling. Watch webinars, read books, find influencers, and invest your time in improving your skills.

Get to Know Your Tools

The next thing I would suggest is that you study the tools you are using. Become the go-to expert in the team for how the software works. Read the online help, watch the tutorial videos. Most vendors have them. Join forums or the user group. Subscribe to the software company’s blog and email list so you get updates for new feature releases. It is unlikely that anyone else will have done this so you can be incredibly helpful by simply knowing the fastest, easiest ways to get data into or out of the tool.

Something specific to look for is how the reporting works. Teams often spend a lot of time wrangling data into a report format that pleases executive management. If you can cut down the time it takes to produce reports, you’ll be the office hero!

Perhaps you could set up templates, or create a scheduled set of alerts that prompt reports, or simply format the reports to give managers what they are looking for.

To do this well, listen to what people say about the software in use and what they are struggling with. These are the pain points to try to address.

Ask for More Work

I know you’ve already tried this, but I would encourage you to try again.

Keep timesheets that show how your time is being used. If you are attending team meetings, and listening to what is happening in the rest of the department, you probably have a good idea of which project teams are stretched for resources.

Your manager might not be allocating you more work because she doesn’t have anything specific for you to do, or she doesn’t want to overload you since you have only just started.

Suggest some specific things that you could take on, like supporting a project manager with an upcoming workshop, taking on drafting her monthly report or project communications, whatever you think you could do. Being vague and asking for “more” isn’t going to get you what you need.

Talk to other project managers as well. Book a slot to have coffee with each of them, ask them what they are working on and how they started out in their careers. Talk to them about where you would like to go in your career. Let them know that you are looking for stretching, interesting work that will help you grow. Let them know that you have time available. Your timesheets will tell you how much time you can commit.

Then follow up. Remind your colleagues that you have time to offer. Keep saying yes to opportunities. Knowing the over-stretched project managers I have worked with in the past, they won’t need asking twice because they won’t like to feel like you have capacity and they are so busy!

You want to show that you are keen, but also that you are proactive and good at what you do. Over time, you’ll find people come to trust you and your judgment and that more interesting work flows your way.

10 Strategies for Managing Multiple Projects at Once

Hands up if you are managing multiple projects? Yes, I thought so!

A while back in my career I had the luxury of managing a big project and that was all I did. I use the term “luxury” lightly because it was hard work, but at least my brain was always in the same space each day.

These days, like many of you, I manage multiple projects. Some of them are actually quite big in terms of budget and duration, but not so much in terms of drain on my time each week. That means I’m juggling different deliverables, stakeholders, schedules, task lists, and more.

Often, when we manage multiple projects, we’re also taking a larger role in doing the work as well. You may have several smallish projects on the go at the same time and have responsibility for delivering a fair amount of the tasks yourself.

Sometimes it feels like I’m all over the place. My day starts with a meeting about one project, I take a phone call about another, switch to helping a colleague with something urgent on a different project and then end the day with a meeting about something totally different. There’s a lot of switching going on!

If that sounds familiar, here are some suggestions to help you better plan and manage your multiple projects. These 10 tips are things that have worked for me and I’m sure will help you too.

1. Prioritize

First, know your priorities. Without this fundamental knowledge, you can spend all day working at top speed and still feel like you are falling behind as you haven’t worked on the right things.

Related: How to Stay Organized When Everything is #1

Your projects will have different priorities, and tasks within those projects will also have different priorities. Make sure you understand what is really important and what’s just a nice to have. Then, if you are working with a team, you can better plan their time to deliver on the crucial stuff.

2. Block Your Time

I think it’s commonly accepted that successful multi-tasking is a myth. Time blocking is a technique that is used to increase productivity and it works beautifully with multiple projects.

It works by forcing you to carve out time for a particular reason during the day and then sticking to it. You could block your time for one client, or one project, or to do one task like return phone calls or process invoices.

Because you aren’t switching activities within that time, your mind achieves a state of flow more easily and you get more done.

Just make sure your team knows not to interrupt you too often!

3. Create Focus

What do you need to stay focused? You can be more productive on your projects if you use your time blocks wisely. And that means staying focused on your priority activities. No getting sucked into Facebook, just to check what’s happening. Stick with your tasks and save surfing for later.

For me, I need a quiet environment to stay focused. I know some people love working with music in the background, but that isn’t something I can tolerate. I also need bright lighting (or I start to doze off and get eye strain that stops me doing my best work). So frankly, working in a noisy, dimly-lit coffee shop that has music pumping through the ceiling speakers isn’t going to give me the headspace I need to get on with my work.

Everyone is different. Learn what works for you and make it happen.

4. Review Your Workload Regularly

Watch out for your workload. Plan what’s coming up and sense check that you will be able to do it all. Go through your To Do list or project schedules, reviewing critical tasks and how long they are going to take. This is a simple thing to do at the end of each week when you are updating your project schedule.

If you can get resource allocation reports out of your project management software, then that’s even better.

5. Delegate

Got too much to do? Delegate! If you have a team, or access to trusted colleagues who are available to help, then make the most of them! You might be able to delegate whole projects. You may only be able to delegate parts of projects, but even that means they are off your To Do list.

Related: 9 Tips to Become a More Effective Delegator

Remember: delegating doesn’t mean that you absolve yourself of everything to do with the task. You still have to provide some oversight to your colleague so that you give yourself confidence that the work is being done effectively and to the required standard.

6. Overlay Your Project Plans

This is easy to do with project management software. You can roll up your major milestones or phases of work and see what the implications are. Look for weeks where several projects have key deliverables due or where you can predict that you are going to be stretched and stressed.

Knowing that this is coming up can help you better prepare for it. You may be able to shift some work around to smooth out the busy times, or you can do some work in advance, get in extra help or whatever. Personally, I like to book a massage as a treat for when a busy period comes to an end. I also try to meal plan so I don’t have to make too many decisions at home when I have been making decisions all day at work.

Related: 5 Ways LiquidPlanner Helps Manage Resources

Tip: Make sure those major deliverable dates are in your calendar. I add project milestones to my personal calendar as well as having them on a project schedule.

7. Track Your Progress

It is so easy to fall behind! Keep an eye of how much time you are spending on any activity. Using the time tracking features of your project management software or just keep a note. You’ll soon get a feel for if one project is taking up too much time and the others are suffering as a result.

Block out some time each week (book a meeting with yourself as the only attendee) to review your progress and take stock of where you are on each project.

8. Be Flexible

Some dates are fixed in stone and you know your project sponsor won’t let you move them. Others have a little bit of wiggle room. If you know which tasks fall into which category, you can flex your work more easily.

Let’s say you had blocked out today to do something on Project A. An emergency comes up on Project B and you’re called to deal with that. Your time blocking isn’t going to work today but that’s OK. A flexible attitude goes a long way to helping you deal with the ebb and flow that is working on multiple projects.

9. Stay Organized

The last thing you want is turning up to a project review meeting with the notes for a different project.

Use processes, systems and tools to stay organized so that you can always find documents and plans that relate to a particular project or client. Make sure that you have easy access to the project schedules and To Do lists that relate to your projects.

10. Manage Expectations

Finally, manage expectations. You have a lot on; you are juggling multiple projects. There will be times when you can’t get everything done for everyone. Let your project sponsors and managers know when you are available and when you plan to have work completed.

Related: How to Manage Stakeholder Expectations

If, for any reason, you can’t keep those commitments, let the people affected know as soon as you can, along with a revised estimate of when you’ll be able to finish their tasks.

This keeps everyone in the communication loop and everyone knows what to expect at all times.

These 10 tips will help you manage multiple projects with the least stress. What other suggestions do you have? Let us know in the comments section.