Author: Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

Ask a PM: How to Motivate the Team When It Thinks It Should Stop

Dear Elizabeth: My project team and the exec leadership team are not on the same page. How do you motivate the team when it thinks it should stop but the senior stakeholders direct us to keep going?

This situation has a major disconnect in it. Your team thinks the project should be stopped, but the people in power, the decisionmakers, are instructing you to keep going on the project. As a result, motivation has plummeted.

I get that. Your team knows it is working on something that is doomed to failure, so team members are struggling to stay motivated.

As I see it, you have a couple of options to pursue in this case.

  • Try different tactics to improve morale.
  • Address the underlying problem, which is that your team and the leadership team don’t agree on the value of the project.

Develop Motivation Tactics

I believe you can only go so far with motivating people in this situation. Anything you try might give you a motivation win for a short period of time, but ultimately your teammates’ fundamental issue—they don’t think the project should continue—will still be there. There’s a limit to how long the goodwill generated from staff recognition schemes and high fives is going to last.

Let’s quickly look at some ways that you can motivate a team, in case any of these are something you want to try. However, let me put it out there now: I think you will have to address the underlying problem sooner rather than later.

For a start, one motivation approach will never work for the whole team. Everyone is different, and people are motivated by different things. You’ll often find people with similar motivations end up in similar roles or industries, but you can’t rely on that to motivate a group (unless the motivation is “staying alive by finding food” in a disaster movie or something).

People are motivated by different factors that include the following:

  • Money
  • Status and recognition as an expert
  • Career advancement
  • Helping others and serving
  • Proving others wrong
  • Lots of other reasons

If you want to tap into how best to motivate a team, break the team down and target individuals. Find out what motivates each person and then look at how you can give it to them in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse. For example, if someone is motivated by earning more, giving them a massive pay rise and giving everyone else nothing is going to backfire. People find out; they always do.

You can do some things to improve the lot of the team overall, which will have positive effects on group morale as these are hygiene factors that we all need to stay on track at work.

  • Provide strong leadership. A leadership vacuum is not a pleasant place to be. Make sure you are demonstrating leadership.
  • Make your processes work. All the basics of how you manage projects should simply work. Fix processes that aren’t optimal, reducing waste and improving efficiency.
  • Give people the tools they need to do their jobs. Not having the correct tech to schedule work, allocate assignments, or track time all contribute to general dissatisfaction in the workplace. Make sure people have robust project management tools that help and don’t hinder.
  • Make sure the basic needs are met. The team should operate as a trusting, respectful unit with good work/life balance. If that isn’t happening, put it right.

Whatever you do to improve morale, expect the benefits to only last a short time. New things soon become expected things, so ultimately the boost you got from giving out rewards or changing a process will become the normal operating procedure. That’s why you will have to address the fundamental issue here: the fact that your team thinks the project should stop while management believes it should carry on.

Understand Different Viewpoints

I don’t know your project or your business, so I can’t advise on whether this project should be stopped or continued. However, someone in your business has the answer to that. Your job is to broker a solution between the team and the executives. To do that, you need to start by learning about the opposing positions.

Start with your team. Find out exactly why they don’t think the project should continue. What flaws can they see? How are the benefits going to be affected? What do they think they know that they haven’t been able to explain yet to management?

Then, talk to your project sponsor. Why is this project so important? What do they think the benefit will be? Have they heard about the argument to stop the project; how would they respond?

At the end of this fact-finding mission, you may have a clear idea about what you feel the correct route forward is. For example, if the project is strategically important, and your team is simply bored of working on it as it has been going on for some time, that’s a problem. You can fix that by switching out team members and addressing the poor attitude.

On the other hand, if the team has identified something that fundamentally undermines the business case, but management doesn’t want to hear about it, that’s a totally different problem. Let’s look more deeply into that situation as I feel that’s most likely to be the case.

Make Your Case

Next, organize a meeting with your project sponsor. You need to discuss the current performance of the project and how likely it is to hit its goals. It’s in everyone’s interest that the project is a success. The company doesn’t want to be throwing money at a project that is not going to deliver anything of value, so on the assumption that your project is genuinely in difficulty, you need to address that.

Talk to your sponsor openly about the issues you’ve uncovered with the team. Talk about what mitigation plans there might be. Can you add something else into scope or remove elements of the project that are underperforming? What changes could you make to the schedule to help make the project more successful? Does another stakeholder need to get involved to improve the outcome? These are all useful things to consider before talking to your sponsor.

Make a recommendation. Tell them what you would suggest doing next. Ask for their help in ensuring a decision is taken. Who needs to be involved in changing the project to make it successful?

You can see I’ve taken the approach that the project can be salvaged. If you make a few changes, you could deliver something of value. If you go into that meeting and say the project should be canceled, that’s a far more difficult message for your sponsor to hear. They may come to their own conclusion that your mitigation plans don’t go far enough and request that the project is closed anyway. You can always keep project closure as a reserve strategy once you have fully discussed how to get something out of the current work so you wouldn’t have wasted too much of the effort that has already been invested.

Keep an Open Mind

One of the things I see often in project-driven businesses is that the board-level members don’t keep the delivery teams up to date with company strategy and the why behind tasks. There seems to be a huge communication issue between the top management levels and the people who are actually supposed to be delivering strategic projects, so bear in mind that you could be suffering from this. An open conversation with your sponsor may help you better understand why the project is still worthwhile from management’s perspective.

Finally, pass all your information back to your team. You’ll get a morale boost simply as a consequence of them seeing you trying to do something about their issues, even if the end result is not what they would have wanted.

This is an intensely difficult situation to be in with many conflicting stakeholder opinions, so tread carefully, listen thoroughly, and then take appropriate action.

How to Create an Inclusive Workplace for Women and Men

It’s widely acknowledged that a positive, inclusive office culture leads to better morale and higher productivity amongst staff. Figures from research by Deloitte and The Female Quotient show that 67 percent of knowledge workers believe that diversity and inclusion drive creativity in the office. Nearly 60 percent believe that diversity improves profitability, and you don’t have to look too far to find other results that support these.

My own experience backs this up. I’ve lost count of the number of project team meetings I’ve been in where someone else brings a different perspective, something I’ve not thought of. One of the most interesting places I’ve worked was the global head office for a financial services firm. People from all over the world came together for “all-hands” meetings. It was also a very female-friendly firm.

Personally, I would rather spend time working on making my work culture inclusive and positive for everyone. While there’s definitely a need for diversity and inclusion programs to support employees, I’ve seen the ripple effect that a shift in office culture has on everyone.

For example, one IT team I worked in introduced a policy of flexible working. You were expected to be at work during core hours, either in the office or available from another location like home, but the hours before and after the core were flexible. As long as your work got done across the week, no one much minded exactly when you put the time in.

That program had a positive effect on everyone in the team. From the father doing the school run in the morning to the woman working in a stable, colleagues need the flexibility to manage their caring responsibilities. We all have lives outside of work. Employers should have woken up by now to the fact employees balance a multitude of responsibilities, and yet many firms still approach work time as something that should be held sacrosanct above all else. Sorry, but that doesn’t work in today’s environment.

The core hours approach is relatively simple, and it doesn’t have to be an office-wide policy. You can make that call for your own department. It’s not the only thing you can do to improve the workplace for everyone? Here are some more ideas.

Flexible Benefits

Offering a flexible benefits system is normally something that needs corporate buy-in, but the rewards can be significant. Employee retention and morale can be improved by making your workplace a great place to be.

Flexible benefits schemes let employees choose from a range of benefit options. For example, one workplace I know has a great program for helping employees buy bikes to cycle to work. However, not everyone wants or needs a bike. A flexible program would offer other alternatives to pick from, like a discounted gym membership or health screening.

You can even make this work on a smaller scale, by negotiating a discount at your local sandwich shop, for example. Even small things can make a difference.

Finally, let’s not forget that adequate childcare is a huge factor in whether women on-ramp and get back into work. Employers can support all working parents with childcare voucher schemes, with on-site crèche facilities, or by simply being flexible enough to allow parents to fit their family responsibilities around their day job.

It’s worth saying here that offering flexibility and being supportive of flexibility are two different things. You can offer flexible benefits and flexible hours, but if the office culture is such that no one is prepared to take them up, then that says more about the leadership than your team’s commitment.

Remote Working Tools

Software that allows you to do your job remotely is almost essential these days. Many project teams rely on colleagues who aren’t in the same building as them. Even if some of the time everyone is together, there are always days where someone needs to be at home to deal with a plumbing emergency (me, last week) or pop into school to meet the teacher. Software that lets you be remote if necessary allows everyone to work more flexibly.

A word of caution: just because you equip your team with tools like LiquidPlanner that let them work on their projects from home doesn’t mean they should be always working. It’s a good idea to set ground rules around work expectations. For example, it might be convenient for you to start a new discussion in your project management tool at 10 p.m., but you shouldn’t expect replies straight away.

An Attitude Change

As I alluded to above, the most important thing for creating a positive office culture is to change attitudes. The raised eyebrows when someone leaves the office at 4 p.m. have to stop. We need workplaces that are open and honest, where there is a culture of trust. This goes both ways: if you say you are going to complete a task on a certain day, it needs to get done. Flexible working isn’t an excuse to do sloppy work. If your colleagues trust you, and you trust them, it’s easier to make the most of flexibility, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. You need to trust that the outcome is going to be what you need, even if the route to get there isn’t what you would have chosen yourself.

A culture of trust and respect is a big driver of productivity in project teams. It takes a while to change attitudes, and it starts with leading from the top. As a project leader, you can set the tone for the team and make sure everyone feels valued for the contribution they make.

A positive office culture that supports working women and broader corporate diversity and inclusion is definitely something to aspire to. Leaders struggle when they think they’ve got all the pieces in place and then let things drift. Culture is something we need to constantly pay attention to and reinforce.

The more businesses do that, the more inclusive and supportive the working world will become for everyone.

Ask a PM: How to Tell a Client You’re Behind on the Project You Just Took Over

Dear Elizabeth: I have taken on an in-flight project. We’re about halfway through, and I think we need to make changes to the schedule. Specifically, we need more time. The client has already signed off on the original deadlines, and I don’t think they will take the news well. How can I break it to them?

It’s always hard when you pick up a project midway through. You weren’t there when the original deadlines were put together, and to be fair to the previous project manager, those dates might have seemed totally reasonable at the time. However, you’ve been left in a situation where you can’t hit the published timetable, and it’s going to make you look like the bad guy because you’re the one breaking the news. It must feel like the project has “failed” on your watch.

The way I see it, you have three choices:

  1. Hide under the bed and hope you magically make up the time.
  2. Find creative ways to make up the time by fast tracking, crashing the schedule, or descoping activity.
  3. Tell the client you need more time.

I hope you have already ruled out Option 1!

Let’s look at the other choices.

Make Up the Time

There are ways to deliver the same amount of work faster.

Fast tracking is a technique where you make the decision to do tasks in parallel when you would normally do the work in sequence.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of DIY SOS, this is what they do to renovate a house. All the trades pile into the house and work together and around each other. When we’ve had building work done on our house, the builders came in first, then the electrician, followed by a bit more builders, and then a visit from the plumber, until eventually everyone had done their bit. We didn’t have decorators painting ceilings while concrete was being laid for the floor, but TV renovation programs show it can be done.

To fast track tasks on your schedule, look at what you currently have in sequence. What would be the risk of carrying out that work in parallel? For example, it could mean developing two parts of the software at the same time, and working closely together to ensure they still function adequately. It could mean testing while some parts of the development aren’t finished and making changes in a more agile way than you were expecting. Talk to your team about what you could force down the fast track.

Crashing your schedule is another option. This is where you add more people to the project or get the existing people to work more hours. There’s a cost involved in increasing the resources on a project, and your company might be prepared to carry that if the cost of telling the client about the delay is too high. For example, if there is a big reputational risk for the firm by not hitting this particular deadline, your manager might be prepared to put some more people on the tasks to help speed things up.

If neither of these schedule compression techniques help you save enough time, you could take activity out of scope. You’d hit the original deadline, but you would deliver a worse quality product to the client. When I see teams facing this choice, they often choose to descope testing time and cut the amount of time allocated for system testing; often that is a risky approach.

Talk to the Client

Ultimately, I don’t think you will get away with not having a conversation with the client. Even if you plan to fast track or crash your schedule, it is worth letting the client know now that you are taking that approach. Then, if you aren’t able to claw back enough time, they have had an early warning of the delay and know that you have already tried something proactively.

I get that it will be a difficult conversation. Be evidence based. Go back to the original estimates. Look at what assumptions were made, because I bet they don’t hold true right now. Find reasons for the delay and craft a message that is honest but also gives the impression that you know what is happening and why it is happening. When the client asks how the delay happened, the worst possible answer is, “I have no idea.” You are being paid to manage the project, so they need to have confidence that even if it’s going a bit wrong, you still know the causes and have some solutions to offer.

That brings us to solutions. During your client conversation, you need to set out what their options are. They could agree to descope functionality. They could agree to pay more. They could agree to a change in the date. Provide them with choices so they don’t feel you have forced their hand.

Book this conversation as early as you can. I love this quote from Colin Powell, “Bad news is not like wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” In my experience, clients hate surprises above all. They may be able to tolerate the delay and manage around it, but only if you give them enough notice. There’s no need to wait until your next regular client review meeting. Call them up now and get something in the diary as soon as possible.

The conversation needs to be about this issue specifically, and not in a large public setting. Telling someone in the project board meeting that the project is running a month behind is not a good choice. They’ll feel as if you are springing the news on them in an environment where they aren’t able to respond freely. Talking to them face-to-face is better than over the phone, so go and meet them if you can.

In this situation, it looks as if the dates will slip. I’m not sure that schedule compression will give you the time gains you need, so negotiate a new completion date. After that, it’s most important that you stick to it. Look back at the team’s performance and where estimates haven’t been enough. Use that information to predict forward. If you haven’t been able to hit the deadlines up until this point, where do you need to put extra time to avoid getting into this situation again in a couple of months? Do a complete overhaul of your schedule and forecasts before you meet the client, so you can present a realistic picture of what you can achieve.

Then, manage the work tightly and keep everything on track, because the client will be deeply unhappy if you’re having the same discussion again before the project closes. Have confidence in your proposed schedule and that will make your conversation easier, but be prepared to flex your approach depending on what is important to the client.

Why Finding a Mentor Is Hard (and What to Do about It)

Mentoring is known to have positive effects on career paths, both for new entrants to a role and for more experienced personnel. In a study by Gartner, over 5 years at Sun Microsystems, the results were startling. The analysis showed that 25 percent of people in the mentoring scheme had a salary grade change, compared to only 5 percent of people who weren’t in the scheme. Retention rates for staff were better too.

However, I work with a number of project managers in a mentoring capacity, and I hear the same thing over and over again: “There aren’t any managers in my business who can mentor me.”

If you have the chance to work with a mentor, take it.

Unfortunately for many, it seems like there are fewer formal mentoring schemes being offered today—that Gartner study dates from 2006—and fewer opportunities for corporate-led mentoring at work.

This is happening for three main reasons:

  1. Capable managers are too busy. People have more and more to do at work and less time for the ‘nice to have’ extras like supporting their colleagues. (This is bizarre when you think about it, but true.)
  2. There aren’t any capable managers. The individual is the only person in a project management role, and no one else has the skills to provide relevant support and mentorship.
  3. It’s too hard to find a capable manager. Budget cuts have meant that there are fewer formal corporate mentoring schemes. Where you used to be able to find these in big and small companies, they are now offered less often, for a shorter period of time, or with fewer mentors so it’s a struggle to join the scheme.

All this adds up to making project management an even lonelier role than it needs to be! As mentoring has great career benefits, how can you fill the gap left by the lack of a formal scheme?

Finding a Mentor

If your company isn’t going to help you find a mentor, what are your options? Here are some suggestions.

Look Outside Your Company

Professional bodies are a great place to start. Pick one aimed at project management, like PMI, or one aligned with your industry—IT, engineering, education, etc.

All these groups have face-to-face meetings, so you may want to narrow your search down to groups that have a physical presence not too far from you. Then, you can attend the meetups. A cost is normally involved with joining a professional body, but many have discounted or student rates. Once you’re in, you’ll get access to their knowledge base and (usually) free entry to monthly evening meetings, breakfast seminars, and whatever else is on their program of activities.

At these events, you can chat with others in a similar situation to you. You might even make a connection that turns into a long-term business relationship. In addition, many PMI chapters actively promote their initiatives to match new project managers with experienced professionals, so you might discover a mentoring scheme within the group.

Go Online

If you can’t meet up in person, make use of the many project management discussion groups, forums, and communities online. Check out groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and Sit in on webinars to learn new skills and hear from experts.

Mentor Yourself

You’re committed to developing your own career, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article. So, what is stopping you from designing a mentoring plan for yourself? A wealth of information is available out there, largely for free. Between YouTube, online tutorials, blogs, magazines, books, professional bodies, and your existing communities, you can learn a lot yourself. Some things you need to learn from experience, but you can pick up many, many tips from people willing to share.

For example, our eBook, How to Manage Chaos, is packed with hard-won expert tips for getting the job done.

Taking responsibility for your own career like this might not seem as much fun as coffee and chat once a month with a senior manager in your own company, but you can learn a lot.

Mentor Others

Offer your services as a mentor. You can still learn a lot from working with other people. You are never “too junior” to be a mentor; if there is someone in the office who needs support with a skill you have, then you can support them. That’s mentoring.

If your team gets a new starter, offer to mentor them through their first few weeks. You know more than you think, and you have to more to offer than you probably expect.

Being a mentor has career benefits, too. Mentors in the Sun study were promoted six times more often than non-mentors.

Going Beyond Learning

The other value point of having a mentor is that they look out for you in the company. A good mentor can make introductions for you, open doors, talk knowledgeably about office politics and the best way to get things done, and generally be supportive of your career within the company.

No amount of online reading or community discussion groups is going to do that.

To get this benefit, you need to build in some networking time. Make a plan to network internally within your organization. You can still meet people and build relationships that will ultimately support your career aspirations without those people being formally in a mentor role for you.

You never know, networking with your manager’s peers may help you find a mentor; it never hurts to ask.

You can also network with people in similar roles to you within your own organization. What’s stopping you setting up an email list of people doing project management roles within the business, and inviting them all to a one-hour catch up on a monthly basis? Could you create your own project management community in the company? Start with a single lunch-and-learn session where you share your lessons from a recent project and see where it goes from there.

If you are feeling unsupported in your role, chances are other people are too. You can be the person that brings the community together within your business.

Think about what you want to get out of mentoring and see how you can meet that need without a formal mentoring scheme at work. You might find it easier than you expected to develop your career in a positive way, and you’ll learn a lot on the journey.

Ask a PM: How to Get a Stakeholder to Take Action on a Problem

Dear Elizabeth: My project has problems. On the team, we all know and can see them, but the project stakeholders don’t understand the issues. Even if I can explain the problems, they fail to take any concrete action to resolve them. How can I get them to see what we can see and do something about it so we can get on and finish this project?

Take a breath, because this might be hard to read.

It’s not them. It’s you.

You’re responsible for communicating in a way that helps them understand what is going on. You’re not doing that. If they don’t know what the issues are, it’s because you aren’t explaining them properly. Your stakeholders are not mind readers. They’re also not involved in the day-to-day work on the project as much as you are, so they can’t have all the detailed knowledge that you do.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment and look at how you can communicate the problems more effectively. Then, you’ll both get what you want: they’ll get the knowledge of what’s happening, and you’ll get a decision that helps your team move forward.

Tailor What You Say and How You Say It

You need to explain a problem to someone. First, put yourself in their shoes. They don’t have the technical knowledge that you do. They most likely don’t have the first clue about the detail you are managing daily. Your project sponsor is invested in the result, not so much the process. If they are an ex-developer or someone who has risen through the ranks, then you might be starting with a higher baseline of vocabulary and knowledge, but let’s assume not for now.

Think about what the problem is and how you can explain it to them. Cut out the jargon. Stick to the facts. Wrap them in business value.

Here’s a formula to use:

  • “We have hit a problem.
  • “The impact is [delay/budget overrun/increased risk/unhappy customers/etc].
  • “The problem is [high-level statement of the problem, without getting too technical, blaming anyone or being confusing].
  • “We could [Solution 1] or [Solution 2]. Can I tell you more about [your preferred solution]? That’s what I recommend we do next.”

If they want to hear the solution you recommend, outline it. If they don’t, we move on to the next part of the conversation.

Ask for Action

Many times, execs don’t make decisions because

  • They don’t know you need them to;
  • They don’t have the skills to choose between the options and are waiting for you to recommend a solution; or
  • This project isn’t that important to them, and they’ve got other things to deal with right now—your turn will come.

In the first situation, you need to ask them to make a decision. Don’t assume that they will work out that you need their input. Sometimes you have to be really clear. If they are busy or, in the past, you have dealt with things and not needed them to take action, they may assume you’ve got it covered. Be specific. Say, “This feels like it needs the project sponsor to make a decision. What else can I tell you to help you make the decision so we can get on with [the next task]?”

The second situation is similar. The stakeholder avoids making the decision because they truly don’t know what the best course of action should be. Make a pros and cons list. Write an options appraisal paper. Summarize your recommendation and why.

Present them with the facts they need to make a decision, and if you already know what you think the outcome should be, make that your strong recommendation.

Finally, you need to accept that your work is only part of what goes across the desk of an exec. If you can’t get a decision from them, ask when you can expect the decision. Say, “I know you’re really busy. This is holding us up, but we can carry on with other work for [number of days/weeks]. After that, we won’t be able to do any more work, and the project will stall. Will you be able to get back to me by [specific date]?”

Then at least you can manage your own expectations and those of your team. The sponsor may not be able to get back to you in that timeframe but now you know. If they give you a date, manage up. Remind them of their commitment a day or so beforehand. Simply drop them an email or pop by their desk and point out that tomorrow the project comes to a halt because you need the decision. Don’t make it sound like you are blaming them for not yet having made the decision. State the facts: we’re a day away from not being able to make any more progress.

If you might lose resources to another project, say that too. In my experience, the perceived threat of losing project team members to other projects is often a good motivator for getting decisions or approvals. The effort involved with having to find other people and get them briefed on the project is often more work than making the decision in the first place.

Of course, this approach might not always work. If you find yourself with no decision and no route forward, make sure you have a documented trail of evidence asking for what you need. You should be mentioning the outstanding decision in your formal project reporting. Then escalate. Tell the PMO that the project is on hold. Email the sponsor (so you have it in writing) and tell them that you’ve told the PMO the project is on hold. Make the brave decision and stop working. Help your team find other things to do.

You may quickly find that the exec stakeholders pull together and get the project back on track. Or, you may find that it never kicks off again. Sometimes that happens. If a project isn’t important enough for the sponsor to care about it, you should look to spend your time and the company’s money on something that is important enough.

In Summary

Learn as much as you can about communication skills and put what you know into practice. Think about how your messages come across and how you can give a clear request to the stakeholders when you need a decision.

Have a plan for what happens when a decision is not forthcoming. Work out how long you can go without a decision and make that clear. Present recommendations. Make it easy for people to make a decision—preferably the right one. Document and record the fact that the project is going to suffer a delay (or whatever the consequence would be) should the decision not happen or be late.

If that doesn’t work, don’t sit around waiting for something that might not happen. You’ve chased, you’ve reported, and you’ve done everything you can to get the answer (make sure you really have). The next step is to stop work and do something else more valuable with your time. If the project is significant enough, it will start up again, hopefully with a sponsor who now understands the importance of making timely decisions.

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.