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 Project Manager: Should I Go Freelance?

“Dear Elizabeth: I’m unhappy in my current job. I think it’s time I made the leap into another company. The main reason behind my unhappiness is the lack of flexibility in my current role. I’m stuck at my desk all day. I’m thinking that freelancing as a project management consultant might be a good solution. What do you recommend I do?”

You’d actually be surprised at how often I get asked this, so you can at least take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone!

There are two things you can do here:

  • Get more flexibility in your current role so you feel happier about staying.
  • Leave your job to do something else. (Don’t resign just yet! Read on first.)

Let’s talk about getting more flexibility first.

If you haven’t already, talk to your manager about flexible working. From working part-time or compressed hours (where you do a whole week of work in three or four days) to working remotely, there are plenty of situations that you could put before your boss.

Project management doesn’t lend itself particularly well to part-time working, but it can be done. (I do it.) It does, however, fit perfectly with the concept of working from home.

With a laptop, phone, and online project management tools, you can pretty much do your whole job from your kitchen table. You could ask your manager if they will let you do that one day a week.

Alternatively, you could try to argue the case for core hours, where you commit to being in between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (or whatever works for you both). Outside of that, you have flexible start and end dates.

This works well as long as they trust you to do the hours required and not simply work between 10 and 4 each day, which isn’t the point of it. It gives you flexible options for drop-offs and pick-ups from school, for example.

If trying to build flexibility into your current job isn’t going to work, then leaving might make you a lot happier. If you want to be able to take three months off a year, for example, then you’ll find that flexibility is more likely to work out in a contract role.

Contracting is often seen as a lucrative option, but it’s hard work. You don’t get paid holidays or sick leave. You only get paid when there is a contract, so you have to be good at managing money to make it through the times when you aren’t working. There is no company pension scheme to support you, and many of the other perks that employees are offered won’t be offered to you. In difficult economic times, contractors are the first out the door.

You might be okay with all of that financial stuff, but contractors also lose out in the friendship stakes. When you’re moving employers every year or so, it’s harder to make longer term, supportive relationships at work. You’ll probably end up working longer hours. More will be expected of you than of a permanent employee because day rates are higher, and you’re considered a specialist resource.

Having said all that, contracting can give you a lifestyle that you wouldn’t otherwise get. You can pick and choose your contracts, taking only the projects you feel are a good fit for your expertise. You can take a break between contracts, take every summer off, or whatever works for your family. You get variety in your work that salaried employees can’t. If you like a challenge and changing environments, this would be a perfect fit.

If you weigh up the pros and cons and decide to go with it, start thinking now about how to make the move.

You’ll need some people to give you work, so you’ll want to build a network of decision makers and budget holders. Start collecting references and testimonials from your clients and colleagues. Update your LinkedIn profile and your résumé. Make sure your professional qualifications are relevant and up-to-date, and if you don’t have any, start studying now.

It’s also worth doing some investigation now into the business set-up you’ll need to be able to operate as a contractor. You could work as a sole trader or set up your own business and charge yourself out from that. Or you could register with an agency and take interim, temporary positions within companies in that capacity. Look into what is going to be most tax efficient for you and the least admin overhead to maintain. You might need tools for tracking your time and billing your clients.

Start looking at the job profiles advertised for consultants, and brush up your skills if you notice that they’ve got something that you don’t have.

Set yourself a deadline. If you still feel like this at the end of the year, decide now what you’ll do to help move yourself toward your ultimate goal of contracting. Map out the steps you’ll need to accomplish before you can hand in your resignation. If you have a target date in mind, work backwards from there to create your timeline. Build up a contingency fund so that if you are out of work for a short time you aren’t going to worry about money.

Such a big job change merits thinking carefully about what it will mean for you and anyone who depends on you. It will be so much smoother and less stressful than quitting tomorrow and then panicking about how you are going to pay your bills next month.

It’s all beginning to sound like managing your career transition as a project to me…

Finally, please take all of these comments under advisement. I don’t know your professional background or your family situation, so ultimately you have to make the decision yourself. What’s right for you will feel right, so you’ll know when you’ve hit on a solution that’s going to work. Best of luck with your career shift!

Ask a Project Manager: My Boss Doesn’t Get Me

“Dear Elizabeth: My boss wants a lot of work done, and he’s put me in the project management role. But I don’t think he really understands what a project manager does.

I have previous project management experience in my old job, and I’d love to be able to run this project properly. But it’s hard to get time with him. On top of that, there isn’t the executive interest in good practice, software tools, etc. even though I know these would make it easier for the team to do what we need to do successfully.

How can I gain buy-in from a boss who isn’t interested in managing projects effectively?”

Wow, there are quite a few problems there! Let’s unpack what’s going on.

First, your boss isn’t available to you.

This is an issue. It says to me that he just wants you to get on with it and not bother him with the details. I get that. Everyone is busy. But you don’t want time. You want support. That’s very different but equally tough to get.

Be specific. What is it that you want from him but are not getting? Once you have truly questioned this, can you go to him (schedule a meeting so he isn’t cornered or too busy) and spell it out. It’s highly likely he thinks he doesn’t need to do anything because you have it under control.

This is even more of a problem if he is your project sponsor. An absent sponsor is never a good thing for a project because it slows down decision making. Thus, you lack the directional steer and vision that helps the team move forward.

Can you get a different sponsor? Many project managers find that their line manager isn’t the best person to be sponsoring the project because the client, a senior user in another department, or the product owner is a better fit. So think about switching out your sponsor.

It sounds like you are in quite an unstructured environment, so you don’t have to do this formally. Just switch allegiances to the person who best fits your understanding of who should be the sponsor.

Trust me, bosses soon find time for you when they feel you are overstepping your boundaries. As long as what you do doesn’t make him look bad, his reaction is likely to range from not caring to thinking you’ve done a great job.

OK, next problem. Your boss doesn’t understand what a project manager does.

As a project manager myself, I love it when people get me. I spent a pleasant hour chatting to another project manager whom I’d only just met recently. I couldn’t believe how fast the time went. We clicked, and he completely understood my challenges. But let’s face it, most people, even our friends and family, don’t really understand what a project manager does.

The textbooks will say that it’s your job to educate your line manager about how valuable you are and what you do, and there is some truth in that. But pick your battles!

Maybe right now isn’t the best time to be explaining your role. He’s not going to listen. Let your results speak for themselves at the moment, and think of ways to shout about the team’s successes so that he can see what you do rather than being told what you do. (Novelists call this technique “show, don’t tell”).

Third, you’re lacking the support you need to implement best practice and software that will make your lives easier.

One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me by a colleague was this: “You have more authority than you think you do. Step up and lead.” This is definitely true in your case too.

One of the top benefits of a line manager who leaves you alone is that you can implement best practices. As long as it doesn’t cost anything, set up the processes and use the templates you want for your project. You want to write a Project Charter? Write one. You want a risk log? Keep one. Create reports to your own standards and send them to him monthly. Make them awesome and helpful. Then in three months, explain some of the issues you’ve found.

Talk authoritatively, using experience from your previous roles. Say what you could achieve if you had a project board, Gantt chart software, a collaborative project environment, whatever. Tell him that what you’d like to do next is… and would he support you with time/cash/training etc? It’s fantastic if you can throw in a few examples of where your team has wasted time or worked on the wrong specification document, or didn’t finish something when another team needed it through not tracking dependencies or some other issue that good practice would help avoid.

To summarize: Get the results then make the ask. Sell the benefits of what you want. The benefits are not “because project managers always work like this.”

Professional project management approaches and tools help you deliver faster, work more effectively, avoid duplication of effort, and be more productive. Speak the language of the exec and make project management meaningful, not administrative.

I hope that makes sense! Be aware this is a long journey. Turning someone round from indifferent to supportive of project management isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, but armed with a strategy to get there you will hopefully manage to get him on side and get the support you need.

Low-Stress Ways to Keep Your Remote Team on Track

Chances are, you’re reading this at work, but you’re not in the office.

You may be on your way to a meeting, and you’re catching up with your favorite websites on the journey. Or you’re stuck at an airport. Or waiting in a coffee shop.

Or you might be working, but not actually in the office.

Remote work is most definitely a thing these days, and it’s not only for people who own their own business or work as contract project managers. Global Workplace Analytics, which studies trends in working life, says that working remotely, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 115% since 2005. That’s nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce.

These numbers show that it’s people in more well-paid jobs, like project management, that have the option for working at home. A typical remote worker has a college education, is 45 years old or older (that seems quite old to me – I know plenty of younger project managers and IT professionals who have flexible working arrangements with their employers), and earns an annual salary of $58,000 at a company with over 100 employees.

Even I do it. I’m writing this at home, waiting for my Pilates instructor. (Yes, really! She comes to my office. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t exercise at all.)

I love the flexibility of remote working, and it’s definitely something that is a helpful recruitment and retention tool when looking for talented people to join my project teams.

However, when your team is scattered across the country, and possibly even further afield, it’s important to think about how you are going to keep them on track and engaged with the work.

You can’t have a quick huddle on a difficult day and boost everyone’s morale. There isn’t the option of popping out and bringing ice creams back for the gang as an afternoon treat. Sometimes it can feel like all you do is message and call people to keep them on track. So how do you keep a sense of team when your team is everywhere?

We’ve got some low stress tips to help you out.

Keeping The Communication Going

You already know that communication is important for successful projects. Keeping the communication channels open even when the team isn’t physically situated together can be a huge headache, but it doesn’t have to be.

Batch your communicating.

Block out a day where you do all your catch up calls and speak to your whole team. If you can, get small groups of team members on the phone together.

Block out time to speak to stakeholders as well.

Your project customers are just as important as your team members. Sometimes, in the effort to keep the team moving, we forget about the people we are doing the work for. Put regular time in your schedule to do your comms activities – invite people to standing meetings if that helps.

Remember to cancel any sessions you feel you don’t need to avoid wasting people’s time.

Automate as much of the “management” comms as you can. Set up LiquidPlanner to send email alerts for when tasks are due, and reminders for upcoming deadlines. That’s at least something you won’t have to remember to do manually.

Supporting Remote Team Members

Sometimes team members need more than a check-in and reminder about the top tasks they should focus on this week. Supporting team members remotely is hard, because ideally you’d want to be sitting at their desk coaching them through a task.

Use tech to help you.

Whiteboarding apps, mindmapping apps, screensharing tools: all these offer the opportunity for you to virtually collaborate with a colleague and to see what they are doing so you can help, coach, and mentor from your home office.

Encourage them to help each other too.

Make sure your team members have access to the tools they need to be able to work in pairs or small groups.

Staying on Track with Projects

Use a tool that will help you stay on track with your project, even in fast-moving environments. When the culture of your team is that everything goes in the tool, it’s easy to see changes in real time and react to them.

This is probably the biggest change for most teams, even though technical teams will have been working with project management and coding solutions for years. The mental hurdle is to open the tools you need in the morning and then stay in them all day, keeping everything updated in real time.

It’s actually easier than it sounds. Once you see the benefits of doing so, you’ll find it relatively easy to switch from your old ways.

The biggest benefit is having total visibility about the project, which helps your whole team stay on track. Or pivot as required, if you sense that something isn’t working out as it should.

Maintaining Motivation at a Distance

This is probably the hardest thing to do with a remote team. It’s also the hardest to give advice about because people are motivated by different things. Get to know your team members so that you can tailor their work (as far as you can) to the things that interest them and motivate them.

Then create a motivating environment.

Here are some ideas for that:

  • Ensure everyone is treated equally and that decisions are made fairly.
  • Ensure everyone has the training and the systems they need to do their jobs.
  • Create a sense of trust and call out inappropriate behavior and poor performance when you see it.
  • Create a strong vision for your project and make sure everyone understands why it’s important and how it contributes to the business.
  • Have fun!

You can do all of these with a remote team, although you’ll have to get creative about ways to have fun. You can’t all pop out for sushi at lunchtime. Think quizzes, contests, fundraising, sharing photos, and creating time in your virtual meetings for the small talk that builds positive working relationships.

All of these take a bit of thought, but once they are in place they are low stress ways to engage your remote team and keep your project moving forward. What other suggestions do you have? Let us know in the comments below.

Ask a Project Manager: School vs The Real World

 “Dear Elizabeth: I am a new project manager in my first internship. I’m out of my depth and overwhelmed with the new jargon. In particular, what I’m finding is that my work environment isn’t exactly like the theory I learned on my project management degree course. What tips do you have for me?”

 

Ah, are you finding out that real life isn’t like the textbooks? Yes, we’ve all been there. I met another intern recently who said to me that he’d learned more in the last 10 months working in the PMO than he had on the previous two years in his business management degree. There’s nothing like a bit of workplace reality for bringing home the skills you really need to make a success of a your career.

First, I should say that the great stuff you learned in your courses is not at all wasted. Please don’t feel so overwhelmed that you start to doubt the value of your education. That has given you a solid grounding in theory, vocabulary, and the concepts you need to be able to work in a project management environment. Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now – trust me, you know more than you think you do.

So, some tips for dealing with the new job.

Learn the jargon.

What you learned in your course might not be the exact terminology that your colleagues are using. There are lots of words that mean ‘risk log,’ and they are virtually interchangeable. However, you’ll feel more comfortable and you’ll fit in more quickly if you use the vocabulary that everyone around you is using.

Start a glossary and note the commonly used terms. If you hear one in a meeting that you don’t understand, write it down and ask someone later what it means. (You can ask in the meeting if you like, but I know it can be difficult to get up the courage to interrupt the meeting to ask newbie questions.)

Find out what your colleagues do.

Everything is less overwhelming when you know who is responsible for what. Then you know who the subject matter experts are when you need assistance.

Ask people to spend 30 minutes of their day with you and talk to them about their job. Where do they fit into the hierarchy? What does their team do? What do they need from your team? And, is there anything you can do to help while you’re here as an intern? Explain that you’re learning about the business and you want to be as useful as you can while you’re there.  I have done this every time I start a new position, and it’s helpful. I have never yet had someone say they didn’t want to talk to me about themselves and their expertise. Reach out. Book five meetings this afternoon.

Do your job.

You are there for a reason, right? At this point in your career, my best advice is to get on with what you’ve been asked to do. Make a good impression and do the work to the best of your ability. If you can offer something more than you’ve been asked to do (for example, an intern I once worked with completely redesigned a tracking spreadsheet I asked him to update, and made it a million times better and less work), then ask if you can do that and deliver it.

The reason I put this point in is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the business as a whole. Depending on where you are, you could be a small cog in a team of hundreds. Your day-to-day priority is to turn up and work through your To Do list. When you can break down your responsibilities into smaller chunks that you can do without feeling overwhelmed, then you can see yourself making progress.

It is helpful to understand the bigger picture, and I encourage all project managers to boost their business acumen skills and learn about how the company functions as a system. When you are struggling, it often helps to just think about putting one foot in front of the other.

Besides, you’ll be surprised at how much you absorb and learn just by doing that.

Connect your job to your course.

In no time at all you’ll be making connections between your tasks and what you learned on your course. Try to identify where someone is using a management style you’ve learned about, or what part of the project management process you are in now. Think about how you would identify stakeholders or run this phase, if it was your project, or what tools you would use that you studied that would help you at this point.

You won’t win any friends by going around saying, “In my course, I learned this…,” and, “I just realized your using situational leadership!” But, if it helps to share those thoughts with your mentor or manager, then do. It’s more important to try to associate what you have learned with what you do in the office so you can see the practical implications of using the techniques you studied.

And congratulations on your degree, by the way! That’s a big achievement, and if you can do that you can definitely succeed in your new position using the same skills.

Advice for Project Managers: Good Questions to Ask in a Job Interview

 Dear Elizabeth: I have an interview coming up. It’s important to me that I find a company with a culture that fits my values and the way I like to work. What questions should I be asking as a project manager to ensure that job is going to be a good fit for me? What are some of the red flags to look out for in the responses?

It’s great that you are thinking about this! So often I speak to people who are just looking at the interview process as a way of showing off their own skills. They forget that interviews are two-way conversations. You need to “interview” the company as well and find out if it is somewhere you would like to work.

After all, we spend so much time at work. It’s going to be miserable for you if you end up taking a job that doesn’t fit with your working style and values. Plus, when you leave after such a short period of time after realizing your mistake, you then have some explaining to do on your CV.

But you aren’t going to have that, because you are going to find a company that is a perfect fit. You’ll be making the right choice because you know you will be happy there.

First, think about the things you want from a working environment. That could be:

  • Flexible working and being able to work from home occasionally
  • Knowing that the talent pipeline supports diversity and that there are strong diversity networks in place
  • Not having to travel, or the opportunity to travel a lot
  • A small team, or a large team, or a medium-sized team environment

Think about the way you do your work. Do you love Scrum but don’t get on so well with Kanban? Do you struggle with some tech but love other applications? Would you be prepared to learn new ways of working if it was required or would you rather fit into a team that uses the tools you are already familiar with?

Some Questions to Ask

Craft your questions around the things you identified above. So if you know that being able to work from home a day a week is a deal breaker for you, be open about it: “I’d like to work from home one day a week. Is that a common working pattern in your organization?” A closed question like this (where they can really only answer yes or no) is a good way to get the information you need. If they are hesitant, or if they say no, you can follow up with: “Would that be something you’d consider for me if I was successful in securing the position?”

Here are some other, more general questions you can ask to get a feel for the culture of an organization:

  • What training can I expect to receive in this role?
  • What support do you have for new starters? Is there a mentoring scheme?
  • What kind of projects will I be working on?
  • How big is my team? Is that the only team doing this kind of work?
  • How long do most people stay in their roles here? Do you encourage promotion from within? What happened to the last person in this role – why is there a vacancy?

I like to ask, “How many women are on the senior leadership team?” Adapt this list so that what is important to you is covered.

What to Look Out For

Your interviewers aren’t going to know everything about everything in the business. Asking for their thoughts on what caused the stock price to drop a few months ago could make them feel uncomfortable and as if you are testing them and trying to prove how much research you’ve done on the company. By all means ask your question, but be prepared for them to hedge the response if it isn’t relevant to their role. They are only human.

However, here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • Saying yes to everything and promising the earth. Unless you can see evidence of that from what you see walking around the office, you should verify claims that seem too good to be true.
  • Not answering the questions or saying, “We can sort that out after you join.” No good. You shouldn’t have to join the company first to work out if you are entitled to childcare help or to understand their flexible working policy.
  • Getting the feeling that they don’t support their staff; hearing that they don’t promote from within; learning that the team hasn’t been together for long because people leave their jobs quickly. While it’s always harder to walk into an established team, it’s more positive to join a team that is expanding because business is growing or because someone has been promoted into a new opportunity, leaving a you-sized gap to fill.

You may only get this one chance to ask your questions, so make it count! You won’t lose anything by asking everything that matters to you. On the contrary, you can only gain by having more information with which to make your ultimate decision. Even if they offer you the job, if you have uncovered insights that would make you think twice about saying yes, you are still a winner because you managed to dodge taking a job that would ultimately make you unhappy.

5 Time Tracking Myths Debunked

Hello! You’re probably here because you don’t track time on your projects. I’d like to convince you that you should.

I get why you don’t – I really do. For a long time, I resisted timesheets too. They took too long to fill in and weren’t accurate enough to use for any serious management information.

We used spreadsheets. We don’t do it that way any longer.

Time tracking is all grown up, and it’s a totally different game today. Here are 5 of the most common myths about tracking time. It’s time (did you see what I did there?) to shake off those limiting beliefs and embrace digital time clocks!

Honestly, it’s worth it. This first myth will tell you why.

Myth #1: Time Tracking Adds No Value

I hear this myth the most, so let’s address it first. Time tracking for time tracking’s sake adds no value. That’s the same as anything else you do that delivers no benefit and is just an administrative overhead – any process can fall into this category. And you strip those out pretty quickly, right?

There is immense value in time tracking, if you know what you are looking for.

First, tracking time on projects records how much effort was spent on particular tasks. LiquidPlanner has intelligent scheduling, and the data feeds into that. The more data you feed the engine, the more accurate your schedule becomes. The better your schedule, the easier it is for you to plan upcoming tasks, anticipate future problems, and help steer your project over the finish line.

Second, tracking time gives you accurate management and status reports. Automating reporting takes a whole extra task off your plate. And off your team’s plate too. They’ll no longer need to complete timesheets and report their hours to you. Because you’ll already know.

Third, you get to find out how much time work takes. This is gold! You can plan better. You can put together more accurate proposals for new clients. You can schedule your recruitment based on upcoming work and be able to justify to senior management why you need the extra hands. And you can be confident when you tell clients when their job will finish.

Truth: If you set it up for success, you’ll get a ton of valuable data out of your time tracking system.

Myth #2: Time Tracking Leads to Employee Burnout

You think your team is going to work more hours because they are tracking their hours?

That might happen for a week. Then they’ll realise that you aren’t measuring them on hours worked, or expecting them to do more. Modern businesses judge by results and help employees be productive while maintaining a work/life balance.

Share the data from the timesheets with the team so they can see what they are being used for and how helpful the data is for their future estimates. You need to help them move beyond thinking timesheets are a tool to beat them with. See Myth #1 for all the good stuff you get from time tracking.

Truth: The benefits far outweigh any frustrations the team might have at the beginning.

Myth #3: Time Tracking Is Only Ever a Guess Because People “Forget” To Do It

Nope. Putting off your timesheet is an excuse that might have worked a few years back. But tech moves on.

LiquidPlanner makes it easy to report your time because time tracking is built in right across the app. It’s just there in front of you.
Start the timer when you start work on a particular item and update your timesheet in real time. The system will also prompt you to add time as you add each task.

No more excuses. You don’t have to guess. You just have to click and start tracking in real time.

Truth: You can track activity in real time if you make the system simple to use.

Myth #4: Time Tracking Is All About Micromanagement

While I know there must be micromanagers out there, I haven’t come across them in the nimble organizations that make a success of their industry. They don’t last. And if your boss is great in all other respects, having timesheets isn’t going to suddenly make her a micromanager.

I guarantee that your normally-sensible line manager is not going to pour over your timesheets like they’re the latest J. K. Rowling novel. He might get over excited at first with all the lovely rich data that’s coming out of them, but very soon you’ll all come to expect that level of management information to help you make the best decisions.

Truth: Managers are looking for trends and big picture data, not how you spent your last hour on Friday afternoon.

Myth #5: Time Tracking Takes Too Much Time

Well, it might, if you ask people to keep spreadsheets of their hours and then you have to collate the team’s timesheets manually each month. Ain’t no one got time for that!

But that’s old-style thinking. Cloud-based tools offer fast, slick solutions to tracking time, all of which take you minutes per week.
The Timesheet tab on the LiquidPlanner workspace lets you see a list of all your work sorted by weeks. Everything is there: your top priorities for the day, last week’s tasks, and what you’ve got planned for the future. It’s simple to add time to the tasks in this view, or add the hours as you work on the tasks if you prefer. You have options. Pick the one that works best for you or mix and match depending on how you are working that day.

Truth: You can complete your timesheets quickly if you use the right tools.

Time tracking’s all grown up. It’s frictionless. The hurdles and hoops are gone and the benefits are huge. What’s still holding you back from gaining a better view of how your business makes and spends money?

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Advice for Project Managers: How do I measure the success (or failure) of my projects?

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“Dear Elizabeth: I want to get better at measuring the success (or failure) of my projects. What project management metrics should I be focusing on? And how can I use these metrics to improve project performance?”

OK. I don’t mean to start off by being controversial, but you’re asking the wrong person.

It’s your project stakeholders who decide if your project is a success or a failure. So what you should be asking is: how will they judge me?

Do they care if you are late by a few weeks as long as you deliver something of supreme quality? Is it essential that you hit the delivery milestone by any means possible, even if that means sacrificing a few bits of functionality?
You can measure time taken to fix defects, number of change requests, deviation from schedule baseline, percent complete, burn rate, or anything else you want. These measures will give you some interesting management information and might help you manage the team. But if your sponsor is unhappy in the end, she won’t feel any better by you telling her you were under budget by 1.3 percent.

So, let’s split your question.

First, talk to your project sponsor and the important stakeholders about what they value. What do they want to get out of the project? How will they know if the project has been a success? Typically, they’ll judge on time, cost, or quality, but it could also be customer/staff satisfaction. Or, they might rate something else. When you know what it is, you can measure it, track it, and prove that you are doing it.

The thing to bear in mind here is that expectations will change as the project progresses. The sponsor who thinks he wants you to hit the delivery date at all costs might change his mind when he realizes he can have extra functionality that’s going to boost customer retention by 20 percent — if he’s prepared for the schedule to slip by a month.

You need to stay close to the expectations of your project decision makers. Keep checking in with them and seeing if their definition of success has changed. Talk to them often and tell them how you are doing against meeting the targets they set with you and the targets they think are important.

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At the end of the day, the stakeholders decide if you met their needs and if the project did what they wanted. You can deliver something on time, on budget, and to the specified scope, and they will still be unhappy. I don’t want situation for you. So check it out with them in advance, and tailor what you measure to their expectations.

That will give you clarity on what success (or failure) looks like and how best to track it. But for your project management purposes, you probably want some other metrics to go on.

Performance metrics help you see how the team is doing and let you spot where there might be problems. If this is the first time you’ve really focused on measuring project performance, don’t make it too complicated. People hold up Earned Value as the way to go for the ultimate in performance tracking, but it’s overkill for most projects.

Try these:

Schedule Variance: Plot your baseline project schedule. Then track your actual performance. Measure the difference between where you thought you’d be and where you actually are. This can be represented as a discrete number of days (“We’re 10 days behind.”) or a percentage (“We’re 6 percent ahead of schedule.”).

Cost Variance: This is the same principle as schedule variance. First, establish your budget baseline. Then, track what you actually spend and compare the two. You’ll end up over- or underspent (it’s rare that you’ll be exactly spent in line with your baseline, but good for you if that happens). You can represent this as a fixed price (“We’re underspent by $5,000.”) or a percentage (“We’re 10 percent over budget.”).

Number of Change Requests: This useful measure offers an indication of how good your requirements were at the beginning. When people want to make a lot of changes, it means you didn’t really know what you were doing upfront. That might be an issue for you. It depends on the methodology you are using. Agile methods tend to be more flexible in dealing with change. Waterfall development methodologies are less good at coping with change to the extent that adding more changes late in the project can be very costly. Either way, tracking trends on the volumes of change requests will let you spot if it’s worth taking a deep dive into requirements or your backlog again.

When it comes to metrics, it’s the context that makes the knowledge valuable. Knowing you are six percent ahead of schedule is meaningless without some narrative that explains why. Perhaps you just cut a huge portion out of your scope, so it’s obvious that you are ahead–you have less work to do overall. Perhaps you got a new starter on the team who is picking up the tasks at a rapid pace (but costing you money on your resource line).

Whatever you choose to measure, make sure you can interpret it intelligently and use your professional judgment to help uncover what it really means for your project. Then you can explain it to your team, use the data in a helpful way, and make better decisions about how to manage your project.

I’m sorry if you just wanted a few easy answers! I think it’s better to give you a realistic view of how to manage successfully than a list of bullet points that make an attractive but pointless project dashboard.

Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketing@liquidplanner.com.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin is a project and programme manager with over a decade of experience. She writes about project management and careers at her website, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

Advice for Project Managers: Finding Mentors and Collecting Project Feedback

ADVICE_COLUMNIST (1)
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketing@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.


“Dear Elizabeth: I’d like to find a mentor to help advance my project management career. Do you have advice on what I should be doing to find the right person?”Searching for guidance

Dear Searching: Well done for deciding that you want to start a mentoring relationship. A mentor can definitely be a career boost, opening doors that weren’t there before.

But you’re correct. You’ll get the best out of mentoring if you can find the right person.

Finding a mentor should begin with an inventory of your needs and wants. What are your mentoring goals? Who do you respect? What area do you want to draw them from? What skills are needed to best serve and guide you in your career aims?

If your organization has a formal mentoring program, start there. In my experience it’s better to be in the formal system than outside it. Ask them to match you with a suitable mentor.

Don’t be afraid to say you want to switch if you don’t click with that person. An experienced mentor won’t take it personally. Good rapport is important. If it isn’t there, they’ll have felt it too.

If you don’t have a formal program to participate in, think about whether you want someone from inside or outside your organization. It may be easier to find someone internal, unless your firm is very small. External mentors can bring different perspectives, but they are harder to find unless you are prepared to pay for their time. Try going through your professional bodies or local networking groups. For example, Project Management Institute chapters’ mentoring programs match junior project managers with more experienced members.

If you’re looking within your organization, a good place to start is the peer group of your line manager or the next level up. Are there any managers in that group that you feel you could learn from? This comes back to your inventory of needs and wants. Do you need someone with deep domain or industry knowledge? Experience in project management? Or are you focused on building your business skills more broadly? Use your inventory to build a list of potential mentors.

When you’ve got a shortlist, just ask them! If they are interested, they’ll want to know what they are committing to before firmly saying yes. Have a frank discussion about expectations: how long and how often will you meet? Will it be over the phone or over email? Draft a mentoring agreement and discuss what you’re both hoping to achieve. That way, you both know what you’re getting into.

“Dear Elizabeth: I’d like to take a more formal approach to gathering my team’s feedback, especially at the close of projects. Do you have any suggestions for garnering constructive feedback?”Formal Feedback

Dear Formal: You need formal feedback on two things: the project management process itself (how the whole thing worked out for the team and what it was like to be ‘in’ the project management process as it unfolded) and the deliverables or outputs. Getting feedback on both of those will give you some great insights into how the project is going, but they need two different approaches.

It’s easiest to get feedback on the work you are doing and the deliverables you are creating. Add a standing agenda item to your regular team meetings and ask for feedback:

  • How are we doing with the scope of this project?
  • What’s the latest position on quality?
  • Are the customers satisfied with the outputs we are generating for them? How do we know?

You can also tailor these questions for your customers. Though you’ll want to ask them for feedback separately.

It’s less easy to get feedback on the project management aspects of the job. Sometimes people don’t understand those as well or can’t separate those from the output of their tasks. You can help get useful answers about this by asking probing questions:

Did we identify this risk in advance? If not, what could we have done differently so that we wouldn’t have got caught out? How did we end up in this situation? If we had managed communication more effectively on the project, would we have avoided it? So what should we be doing going forward to improve communication in the team?

These are examples; you’ll be able to think of some relevant to your project. The questions can be more challenging to identify and definitely more challenging to answer as they relate to working practices. No one likes to say that the way they did their job wasn’t as good as it could be.

So:

  • Manage the people in the room when you ask for constructive feedback. In my experience it works best when the most senior people on the team aren’t there. Talk to the sponsor or any senior managers separately.
  • Make it about the process, not the people doing the process. They couldn’t have done anything different (most of the time) because the process encourages them to work a particular way. Change the way you work to be more effective for everyone.
  • Encourage, listen and act! People will share if they think you are going to do something constructive and positive with the feedback. If they don’t see anything changing, what’s the point of them commenting on how things could be different?

You can get a head start on capturing formal lessons learned with this meeting agenda template designed specifically for lessons learned, and this meeting minutes template to record what came out of the discussion.

To help aspiring project managers, and accidental PMs build confidence and be great at what they do, we built the perfect handbook for you: Our Ultimate PM Guide!

Ultimate PM Guide

 

Advice for Project Managers: Soft Skills Needed for Success

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Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: I’m currently a technical project contributor, but I would like to be a project manager. In my experience, technical leads don’t always have the people skills necessary to manage teams and processes. What soft skills do I need to develop in order to be successful as a project manager? —Climbing the Career Ladder

Dear Climbing: First, congratulations on having clear career goals and knowing where you want to go. Being a project manager is a fantastic career move, if I do say so myself!

I think it’s also great that you are aware that people skills are important. Working on your interpersonal skills, and being aware of what’s needed to succeed as a project manager, will give you a huge advantage when it comes to being interviewed for the job.

So, what sort of skills should you be developing? Here are my top three.

Skill #1: Asking people to do things without being rude, especially when they don’t work for you.

You most likely will work in a matrix environment where the team members on the project have a line manager somewhere else in the business. They won’t work directly for you. Therefore, asking them to do anything is an exercise in tact and negotiation. It’s likely they also have day jobs to keep up with and other project managers asking for their time. Learn how to delegate work and get commitment to deliver tasks without being seen as domineering.

Skill #2: Noticing when people are struggling and stepping in to offer just the right amount of help.

No one likes to be micromanaged, but the alternative can be letting your team members get on with their work only to find out they weren’t actually doing anything after all. There is a fine balance between asking for updates to the point of annoying your team and leaving them to their own devices.

Work on finding the sweet spot between those two extremes. I recommend using weekly check-ins to ask the probing questions about progress and step in to keep things moving if you need to.

Being able to uncover and understand why progress isn’t happening is also important. It could be that the individual needs training, confidence, more time, less stress, or something else. It will be your job to identify those issues and support the team. You’ll need to know them well enough as individuals to be able to do that.

Skill #3: Being able to say the things no one else wants to say to protect the project and the team.

A huge part of being a project manager is communication skills. You need the confidence and communication skills to to speak up when it’s necessary. The sponsor wants a ridiculous change? It’s your job to explain why you think it’s ridiculous, but she can have it if she wants and the implications would be X, Y, and Z. The head of department wants everything delivered by Friday? When your team just spent a month working overtime to hit the next milestone, you know you’ll have mutiny if you push them harder. You’ll have to explain why that isn’t possible with the current resources.

You may need to have some tough discussions with your team too. It’s easy to talk about hitting milestones, delivering benefits, and creating awesome stuff. The hard part comes when you make mistakes and have to own up to them, when you need to say no to people, and when you have to challenge decisions and report failures.

You need to protect your team from the office politics that all this brings, so being able to handle conflict, stay unruffled, and yet still celebrate success all contribute to the interpersonal skills you’ll need to succeed as a PM.

Good luck!

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Advice for Project Managers: How to Save Your Job, and Process vs Tool

Project Management Advice Column
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: Process or tool—which comes first? Our executive team disagrees about this every time we evaluate our project and work processes and start to consider software tools—current and new ones. I fall on the side that process comes first, then you use the right tool to support it. Others argue that you get the right tool and processes fall into place. What are your thoughts? – Process Fan

Dear Process Fan: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I think in this case that you’re both right. Or wrong. Whichever way you want to look at it.

Tools are often built around industry-standard best practices. Adopting your work processes to align with the way the tool works can add efficiencies. However, every business has its unique quirks and you might find that there’s a particularly critical process for you that isn’t an out-of-the-box feature.

If you were starting from scratch, I’d say that a tool can really help you set up your business for success, as the built-in processes will kick start your own project management approach.

Since you’re not starting from scratch, I would say that an iterative, evolving approach is the best. Accept that your business process may have to change to suit your tool, but where your processes are “better” than what your tool provides (whatever “better” means for you) then you may have to customize the solution to make it work smoothly.

Your challenge now becomes being able to help your executive team move beyond the processes/tools discussion and towards one that revolves around outcomes and business value. When you focus on your end goal – something that you do have in common! – you’re more likely to have productive conversations about how to get there.

Look for a tool that is going to grow with you as your needs change over time. You’re going to have to tweak both your processes and the way you use your software to get the best performance for your team.

AskElizabethCTA

 

Dear Elizabeth: Budgets are getting cut at my current job, and I’d like to stay around! I work as a senior-level project manager in an IT organization. Do you have any advice or wise tips on actions I can take to make myself more valuable to my team? – Love My Job

Dear Love My Job: If budgets are being cut now it might be too late. But let’s plan for the best-case scenario and talk about what you can do to quickly show yourself as a really valuable member of the team.

  • First, make sure you are solid at the basics. Follow through on actions. Deliver on your promises. Be the safe pair of hands. If you have outstanding tasks, or people are waiting on you for things, smash through your list.
  • Second, cultivate a positive attitude. No whining, gossiping or moaning. Be a ray of sunshine for your office without being fake about it. People like to work with positive people.
  • Next, be assertive with your helpfulness. Be helpful and serve your colleagues, but without being a pushover. It’s great to show willingness; just don’t end up being the office doormat. Don’t worry that saying no sometimes will disadvantage you when it comes to the selection process. As long as you do it politely and with reason, it’s a show of assertiveness.
  • Finally, if you don’t do it already, think big picture. As a senior-level project manager, you should be always acutely aware of the business context of your projects and actions. Working in IT can get a bit siloed at times, so think about how your objectives fit in to those of the business overall. And then, make sure people know you are thinking. Find ways to demonstrate that you know how your piece of the business links to others and how your work adds value to the company.

Be awesome! And cross your fingers.

Wait, there’s more! If you want some insightful and practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges