Author: Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen

About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen is a Project Management Leadership Coach, and author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook (2012) and The Power of Project Leadership (2015). She is a PRINCE2 and MSP Practitioner and a qualified Corporate and Executive Coach. Susanne is member of the Association of Project Management (APM) and has over 17 years’ experience in leading large change programs for the financial sector. You can visit Susanne’s website at and follow her on Twitter: @SusanneMadsen.

7 Essential Time Management Strategies

Get the right things done in less time

To get ahead in your career, deliver your projects successfully and to get a promotion or a pay rise, you must learn to consistently focus on the activities that add the most benefit to your projects and your clients. The better you are at maintaining focus and managing your time, the more you will achieve, and the easier it will be for you to leave the office on time. Not only does effective time management allow you to get better results at work, it also helps you withstand stress and live a more fulfilling life outside of work.

The following strategies will help you get the right things done in less time.

1. Start your day with a clear focus.

The first work-related activity of your day should be to determine what you want to achieve that day and what you absolutely must accomplish. Come clear on this purpose before you check your email and start responding to queries and resolve issues. Setting a clear focus for your day might require as little as five minutes, but can save you several hours of wasted time and effort.

2. Have a dynamic task list.

Capture the tasks and activities you must do on a list and update it regularly during the day. Revisit this list frequently and add new items as soon as they appear. Make sure your list gives you a quick overview of everything that’s urgent and important, and remember to include strategic and relationship-building activities as well as operational tasks.

[Further Reading: Time Management Tips From a Pro]

3. Focus on high-value activities.

Before you start something new, identify the activity that would have the most positive effect on your project, your team, and your client if you were to deal with it right now. Resist the temptation to clear smaller, unimportant items first. Start with what is most important.

  • To help you assess which activities to focus on first, ask the following:
  • What does my client or my team need most from me right now?
  • What will cause the most trouble if it doesn’t get done?
  • What is the biggest contribution I can make right now?
  • Which strategic tasks do I need to deal with today to help us work smarter tomorrow?
4. Minimize interruptions.

The more uninterrupted time you get during the day to work on important tasks, the more effective you’ll be. Identify the activities that tend to disrupt your work, and find a solution. For example, avoid checking emails and answering the phone when you’re in the middle of something important. Once you have broken your flow, it can be difficult to reestablish it. Instead, discipline yourself to work on a task single-mindedly until it’s complete.

5. Stop procrastinating.

If you have difficulties staying focused or tend to procrastinate, you may benefit from creating an external commitment for (deadline) yourself. For instance, schedule a meeting in two days’ time where you’ll be presenting your work and by which time your actions will have to be completed. It’s also very effective to complete the most unpleasant tasks early in the day, and to allow yourself small rewards once you’ve completed them.

6. Limit multi-tasking.

Many of us multi-task and believe we’re effective when we do so, but evidence suggests that we can’t effectively focus on more than one thing at a time. In order to stop multi-tasking, try these tips: Plan your day in blocks and set specific time aside for meetings, returning calls and for doing detailed planning and analysis work at your desk. Whenever you find yourself multitasking, stop and sit quietly for a minute.

[Further Reading: Multi-tasking is Killing Your Business]

7. Review your day.

Spend 5-10 minutes reviewing your task list every day before you leave the office. Give yourself a pat on the back if you achieved what you wanted. If you think your day’s effort fell short, decide what you’ll do differently tomorrow in order to accomplish what you need to. Leave the office in high spirits determined to pick up the thread the next day.


This article first appeared on Susanne Madsen’s Developing Project Leaders blogSusanne’s latest book, “The Power of Project Leadership” is available through Amazon.

Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers

Until recently, popular opinion said that project managers’ experience levels and IQ were the best indicators of project success. But this perception is changing. These days, it’s more generally accepted that straight-up intelligence is only part of the success card. Now, PMs and leaders need a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ), too.

Signs of Emotional Intelligence

Having a high EQ means that you’re able to recognize and interpret other people’s emotions, and understand how these emotions affect the people around them. Having a working EQ also means that you understand how other people feel and see how they’re able to relate to others—which helps them lead and build better relationships.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are great to work with because they make others feel good, are able to motivate the troops and stay calm under pressure. These leaders aren’t easily angered or upset and don’t shout or blame when things go wrong. Who wouldn’t want to work with someone like that?

How to Raise Your EQ

But what can you do to develop your EQ skills? It doesn’t matter how far along in your career you are, it’s never too late to up your EQ quotient. Emotional intelligence is something that can be trained and improved at any age.

Here are six questions to ask yourself that will develop your emotional intelligence:

1. “How am I feeling?”

As a project manager it’s tempting to focus only on the work that’s being done, and overlook the more emotional and people-related aspects of the job. But, it’s people who deliver projects and people are influenced by their emotions—and often times a PM is managing the emotional weather system that surrounds a project.

This is a skill you want to have. One of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence is to be aware of your own emotional state, and that of others around you. As a leader, you do everyone a disservice if you’re not aware of the mood of the team. So, if you’re not someone who normally taps in to other people’s state of mind, start by tapping into your own.

Related: How to Manage Chaos: Advice on PM and Workplace Conundrums

The better you are at identifying your own emotional state, the better you’ll be able to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. To heighten your awareness, take time out during the day to ask yourself how you’re feeling (even if it feels weird at first!).

If someone calls you with news about your project, consider if it’s making you glad, sad, mad (angry) or scared (fearful). Consider this exercise as a way to develop your emotional awareness muscle. If you can tap into your team members’ moods and respond appropriately, your leadership skills will go through the roof, and so will your project results.

2. “What does it feel like to be the other person right now?”

Another cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize with others. When you empathize you’re able to feel what’s going on for the other person right now. This ability is imperative if you want to motivate a team member, handle situations of conflict or build strong relationships of trust with the project’s stakeholders.

To strengthen your ability to empathize, make it a habit to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Step outside of yourself and imagine what it feels like to be that other team member or customer. And remember, if you’re not sure how someone is feeling, ask.

3. “What is this person really saying?”

The ability to understand people on your project will get easier if you tune into people and really focus on what they’re saying. In contrast to hearing, which is an automatic reflex, active listening takes effort and requires that you put your own internal mind-chatter aside and concentrate on the person who is speaking.

To practice listening at your highest possible level, fully focus on the person in front of you, instead of considering what you want to say next. In this state of heightened awareness use your intuition to read them and ask: “What is the person really trying to say?”

Maintain your focus by repeating and paraphrasing what is being said, and stop yourself from interrupting by putting your tongue on “pause.” To put your tongue on pause, suspend it in the middle of the mouth where it neither touches the top part nor the bottom part of your month.

4. “How can I build a good connection between us?”

To increase your social skills and further strengthen your emotional intelligence muscle, build rapport with the people you work with. To build rapport, find out what you have in common, as the deepest rapport comes when interests, beliefs and values are matched and paced.

Related: How to Build Strong Connections with Project Stakeholders

It’s also important to maintain eye contact and to respond to what people are saying by nodding and speaking in a similar way as they do (tone, rhythm and pace of voice). Without mimicking, you can also match and mirror their body posture, hand movement, smile, sitting posture, etc. Consciously notice any mismatching behavior and allow your unconscious to return to a natural match.

5. “What is the most appropriate response to this situation?”

Managers and leaders who are easily annoyed—with a team member’s late delivery or yet another change request from the client—are likely to be impulsive and forget to think before they act. To become more mindful of how you would like to react, begin to slow down your responses. Stop and notice how you feel before you automatically react to a situation. Examine the stimulus and look at it for what it really is. Then count to 10 and ask yourself, “How would I like to respond to this situation?”

When you follow this advice you’ll be free to choose your response (and a productive one) instead of being locked into an automatic reaction. The best responses to a situation are usually those that have been thought through, and not those that are triggered by an impulse.

6. “What did I experience during the day and how did I react?”

Another great way to heighten your awareness and improve your EQ is to watch your behavior (like a student learning something new) and then write about it. When you write something down it promotes learning and reflection, gets in your muscle memory and helps you make unconscious behaviors conscious.

Related: How to Be a Great Leader

At the end of each day, think back to the people you interacted with on your project: What did they say and do and what were your feelings and responses? Write down your observations and reflect on your behaviors. Writing it all down will help you increase your awareness so that you can learn from experience and in turn refine your behavior.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You can’t control everything that happens on your project, but you can control how you react. Increasing your emotional intelligence means that you know what your triggers are and that you’re able to actively manage them. It also means that you become increasingly aware of your emotions and of those of the people around you, and that you are better able to relate to others, empathize and build rapport. To hone your skills, become aware of how you feel throughout the day, and spend more time with other people, listening to them and enquiring about their moods.

Why Is Organizational Change so Hard?

When we talk about “organizational change,” the words “resistance” and “tension” often spring to mind.

Consider the difficulty, for instance, when two organizations merge, or the fear that employees feel when a part of their job is automated and some of their skills become redundant. The problem isn’t with the change itself, in spite of the difficulties that it may bring.

Organizational change is vital for any business that wants to survive and thrive in our increasingly competitive and fast-paced world. The problem is that many leaders struggle to fully motivate and engage their employees in the process. They often move too fast, are too outcome driven and not sufficiently consultative in their approach.

What is resistance to change?

Resistance to change is a phenomenon we frequently talk about in project management circles; it’s something we often quote as a major reason why projects and change programs don’t deliver the results they set out to. At its core, resistance to change is a label we apply to people who seem unwilling to accept a change. But for the most part, it isn’t the change itself that people resist. People resist change because they believe they will lose something of value, or fear they will not be able to adapt to the new ways.

When organizational change goes wrong it’s often because it’s being treated purely as an implementation of a new process. The manager uses a logical approach to deal with the practical elements of the change, but ignores the emotional side of the equation. Consider the example of an office move, for instance. This might be a straightforward project for the people who have been tasked with making the office move happen, with a well-defined outcome. But to the employees who will be affected by the change, it’s so much more than just an office move. It’s a significant change to their daily routine, which is deeply emotional because it threatens their level of safety and security.

Fear and uncertainty fuels resistance

Initially, the announcement of something like an office move might be met with excitement and positivity—especially if the building is newer and brighter and better located. But what happens if some people have to commute longer distances to get there? What happens if some people have to give up their private offices for an open seating plan, and believe it will affect their ability to focus and get the job done?

This group of people will feel uncertain and fearful—which to most managers will be perceived as “resistance.” And this type of resistance cannot be overcome through force and logic. It can only be addressed when managers and leaders take an interest in people’s deeply rooted emotions and the needs that drive them.

One of the six human needs that we all share is certainty. This is a need for safety and security and for knowing how a change will affect us. We need clarity and assurances so that we can put our fears to rest and feel that we will be safe and OK in spite of the change. It is a rudimentary part of our survival instinct that’s at play here. When people feel threatened or unsafe they switch from using their rational brain to their emotional brain. We are simply not as logical and rational as we would like to think!

How leaders help navigate change

What this means is that leaders need to make people feel safe and secure by addressing their fears and concerns. Great leaders do that by involving people in the change process, consulting them, listening to their ideas and making them part of the journey.

No one likes to have a change imposed on them. It’s far better to draw people into the story by making them active participants. Managers who only see the transactional side of a change will not be able to bring their teams with them. The trick is to understand human psychology and address the real concern of: what’s in it for them.

Great change leaders make people see the positive aspect of a change and make the status quo seem unappealing. They are able to do so because they have the capacity to empathize and walk in their team members’ shoes.

The soft skills are really hard

You may think that the ability to empathize and fully understand what’s going on for someone else is easy, but the soft skills can be really hard to master, as most of us have been taught to focus on tangible and hard outcomes. In today’s fast-paced business environments, the need for change leaders who understand human psychology in addition to hard results and KPI’s is vital. This is especially true when the mission is to change a company’s culture. An office move can be hard enough, but there is nothing more challenging than changing peoples’ psychology.

Imagine, for instance, a team leader who wants project managers to be more collaborative and better at empowering their teams, listening and asking questions. This is a big ask if the employees fundamentally believe that a good project manager is someone who is good at giving orders and telling others what to do. In such situations it is imperative to understand human psychology and to engage a coach who can help support the change.

Great leaders know that it is not enough simply to tell people how you want them to change. You also need to put in place mechanisms that can help them to actually implement the new behaviors. Professional coaches are excellent at supporting leaders and their teams in the transitioning process

What can you do to become better at implementing an organizational change? Make sure you give people as much clarity as you can and communicate the impact to those who are affected. Walk in their shoes. Listen to their fears and concerns and make them part of the story. Good luck!

Related stories:
How to Adapt to Change & Uncertainty in Your Project Plan
How Project Management Coaching Makes Better Leaders
Portfolio Careers: The Future of Work

How to Create an Innovative Project Team

Innovative project teams are increasingly becoming an invaluable asset for corporations. Not only is it becoming vital that project teams make use of the latest technological advancements in the products and services that they’re developing; it’s also vital that teams continuously improve the way in which they work—and that they find new and innovative ways of cutting costs in order to stay competitive.

product team

Not long ago I went to China to coach a team from a global electronics firm. They are market leaders, renowned for their quality and cutting-edge products. Still, this organization is facing strong competition on price from other players. Consequently, each year the head of product development challenges the teams to cut costs—sometimes by up to 20 percent—to stay competitive. When looking at how to cut costs, the teams have to be exceptionally innovative in the way they approach the design and production of their products.

Continuously coming up with new ways of working and developing products and services is a skill—a dynamic property that all successful teams will need to develop to lead the competition.

How do you create an innovative team, and encourage cutting edge ideas? Here are five ways to play the innovation game:

1. Seek inspiration from outside the team

Innovation isn’t necessarily about inventing something that’s totally unique and has never been done before. Instead, it could be leveraging an existing idea or technology from another industry and embedding it within the team’s products and procedures.

As the artist Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artist steal.” Most industries are advancing at a faster pace than ever before, and there are lots of ideas that can be transferred if you keep your fingers on the pulse. Innovative teams keep abreast of what’s happening in the world around them. They read blogs and trade magazines, attend conferences and trade shows and spend time with other teams who they might learn from and get inspired by. If teams work in silos and rarely get exposed to other ways of working, they’re a lot less likely to come up with new ideas. Innovative teams and people look outside of themselves for inspiration.

2. Share information effectively inside the team

It’s not sufficient for teams to get inspired by new ideas from the outside world if the information isn’t shared with the rest of the team. It’s the team that has the power to collectively do something with an idea—from improving it to ultimately integrating it.

Every team member plays a pivotal role, and every team member is kept in the loop of the latest thinking so that they can be effective in their roles and further develop the ideas. Innovative teams are great communicators and have an effective way of disseminating information between its members. It’s been proven that one of the most efficient ways of encouraging the flow of information is by spending time face-to-face. And this is exactly what innovative teams do. They physically sit next to one another where possible; when it’s not possible, these teams spend time on video conference, sharing what they know.

3. Be a leader who stimulates creativity

Innovative teams are led by someone who recognizes that if you don’t enable people to innovate then it won’t happen. We could call such a leader a Multiplier. A Multiplier is skilled at getting the best from people and at creating an environment where the best ideas surface. These leaders stimulate creativity by asking why and what-if questions and by shifting the burden of thinking onto the team. Multipliers want to learn from people around them, so instead of providing the right answers they simply ask the right questions. In other words, they create debate and invite the team to fill in the blanks.

Teams who are led by the opposite type of leader – a Diminisher – will feel stifled. Diminishers tend to be controlling and want to take the credit for innovative ideas themselves.  Instead of shifting responsibility to the team, they stay in charge and tell others – in detail – how to do their job. Invariably, innovative teams would never be innovative if they were lead by a Diminisher.

4. Take time to experiment and play

Put a value on taking the time to come up with new ideas! Teams that work to a tight delivery schedule and who are frequently being monitored and controlled will tend to come up with fewer new ideas because there’s no time devoted to them. Innovative teams, on the other hand, create the time and the space to consider how something can be done differently. They take time out to experiment and to play; their physical work environments will often stimulate idea generation.

In some cases, innovative teams are given an amount of unstructured time where they can work on anything they like, as long as there are results to be shown—made famous by Google back in the day. When teams play and experiment, some ideas will invariably fail—something that innovative teams see as a necessary part of the process, which helps guide them in the right direction.

5. Hire a mix of skills and personality types

Innovative teams are made up of people with a range of personality types and a mix of skills. When teams become too uniform they don’t have enough breadth to fully develop and implement new ideas. An innovative team isn’t just composed of creative types, but also of people with deep technical knowledge who have a more pragmatic approach.

Generating new ideas is one thing, but choosing the best one and successfully implementing it is something entirely different. In spite of their diverse strengths and skills, innovative teams are exceptionally supportive of each other, and are what psychologists call, socially sensitive. This means that not only do team members respect each other and make space for each individual to contribute on equal terms, they are also sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviors. This sensitivity creates a safe space for people because they know that their thoughts and ideas will be encouraged and listened to.

Step bravely and uniquely into the future

Increased competition and technological advancements mean that it’s becoming more important for successful teams to be innovative. Forward-thinking teams are aware of the world around them and willing to take risks; they know how to move on from mistakes and keep executing until they hit on a new market need or improve on an existing one.

Put these five practices into action and you could be surprised what your team is capable of. This might be your best year ever!

The future of industry is changing. Innovative teams are turning to new dynamic processes and software to support the speed of doing business. To learn more about how LiquidPlanner supports innovative teams, read our eBook, “An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management Software.”

An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management

The 5 Top Challenges of Managing Small Projects

There are many great reasons to love managing a small project team. For starters, your projects are generally shorter in duration and less complex, which means you have a better chance to make an impact. In addition, communication and team-building often improve when you’re working with a small-knit team because there are fewer people to oversee and coordinate.

Still, there are a number of distinct challenges that are unique to small project teams. It helps to keep these issues in mind and come up with creative solutions when you’re leading and negotiating project work. Here’s a look at five common challenges, and how to solve them.

1. There are fewer specialized roles.

Smaller project teams tend to have a broader level of skills in order to cover multiple functions. For instance, you might not have a dedicated tester, so this role falls to the people who are creating the product. You also might be missing a dedicated business analyst looking after the requirements, a solutions architect or a configuration manager.

Whereas these broader skill levels and overlapping roles create a high level of variety and growth opportunity for those working on the team, it also represents a unique challenge. When depth of knowledge is lacking, the team becomes dependent on outside specialists for information.

In some cases, if a specialist isn’t called in, the project may be compromised. Imagine the difference, for instance, between working with a specialized business analyst who is trained and skilled at extracting user requirements, prioritizing them and documenting them, compared to someone who is doing it simply because they have to fill a gap.

Try this:

Be up front about where specialist skills and knowledge may be missing and either create a training plan or, pair team members up with a hands-on mentor or a go-to person from another team. In addition, those responsible for recruiting members to a small team should specifically look for people who are comfortable taking on multiple roles and who will be more forgiving working in a team with few or no specialists.

2. The project manager is more exposed.

Let’s turn our attention to the project manager for a moment. It’s not uncommon for a PM on a small project team to feel stretched and challenged due to the many roles required to perform the job. For example, the project manager might have to cover procurement, vendor negotiation and contract management even if it’s not their strength. Business analysis and requirements gathering is another area that they may have to cover.

Related: The Project Manager’s Guide to Managing Job Stress

What’s particularly stressful about these roles is that they’ll expose a project manager who isn’t a particularly strong subject matter expert and who doesn’t understand the client’s business in depth. On a larger team there are more people to draw on, but on a small team, subject matter expertise often falls on the project manager.

Try this:

To overcome this challenge, the PM must be briefed about the client’s situation and learn as much as possible about the subject matter before the project kicks off.

Having said that, it’s never possible to be 100 percent “ready.” A certain amount of learning will always take place during the project. The best homework for the PM may therefore be to prepare mentally for the challenge and to acknowledge that the real learning happens when we move outside of our comfort zone and that it’s OK not to know everything.

3. The project manager has no one to delegate to.

To add to the previous challenge, the project manager of a small team is unlikely to have anyone to delegate to. This means that it falls to the PM to also carry out project administration, including writing up meeting minutes, checking time sheets, managing documentation and compiling progress reports.

Related: 6 Tips to Managing a Demanding Workload

This can lead to overwhelm and disillusion, especially when the project manager is also a team member with specific responsibilities for producing content. On many smaller teams there may even be a lack of understanding and appreciation for the project manager role with very little effort set aside for it.

Try this:

Be realistic from the outset regarding how many roles your project manager can credibly take on. Have an honest look at all the work items and duties, and ensure that sufficient time is set aside and prioritized. In addition, encourage your PM to have an open and honest conversation with you if they feel that their workload is becoming unmanageable.

Finally, why not ask your boss for some part-time project support? It can end up making all the difference and help the project manager to avoid overwhelm.

4. Senior management gives you less attention.

One of the unfortunate disadvantages of small project teams is that because they tend to work on smaller projects, they may often be less of a priority for senior management.

The bigger projects tend to get all the attention because more is at stake. While it could be seen as a positive that senior management isn’t breathing down the neck of your team, it becomes a challenge when you need a quick decision from a stakeholder or some executive direction, and no one’s responding.

Try this:

Project success is highly dependent on the project team having the backing of an engaged sponsor and a well-functioning steering committee, so it’s important that this challenge is addressed head on.

You, along with your project manager, can do this by having a frank discussion at the first steering committee meeting, and come to an agreement on how much attention and support the team needs throughout the project’s lifecycle. It’s important that your small project team doesn’t take up more of senior management’s time than absolutely necessary. Steering committee meetings could be limited to 30 minutes.

5. Resources and morale suffer.

If you’re managing a small team that’s working on a lower priority project, you’ll notice the effects when resources become tight. If another bigger project is running into trouble and needs more people, team members could be taken from your project, and stifle its progress.

Related: How to Manage Resources for Your Team

This resource challenge—and the fact that the team is often perceived as being less important—can have a negative impact on team morale. No one likes to work on a project that isn’t seen as important. Most people prefer to work on the big snazzy projects with a big budget and a big business case. It builds their skill set and resume, and makes them feel more important.

Try this:

Spend time creating a strong cohesive team and ask for its members to be ring-fenced where at all possible. When a strong team spirit is created, people will enjoy coming to work, be more engaged and contribute their best effort to the project.

Also, continue to highlight the importance of the project and remind the team and senior management of the project’s benefits so that resources aren’t taken from it. Smaller teams also have a purpose, but at times team members and stakeholders need to be reminded of it.

In summary, small teams have many advantages, but also some unique challenges. The biggest challenges relate to lack of subject matter expertise and specialization within the team, fewer people to delegate to, lack of attention from senior management and the risk of low morale as the project may be less critical and hold a lower budget.

If you know what to expect and how to navigate these situations your team will thrive and do great work!

Learn more about how to clear your project management hurdles and master in your industry! Download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

Solve the Top 9 PM Challenges

How to Solve the 5 Top Challenges of Manufacturing Projects

When you work on a manufacturing project, you face some unique challenges, often with a lot at stake. You have to deliver your product at consistently high-quality standards, navigate end-to-end supply chains and manage strict time-to-market deadlines driven by demanding customers or seasonal demands. To top it all off, the entire project might be following a process where design, scope, cost and time scales were fixed at the very beginning of the project—or it could be a first-time project so who knows how long parts will really take?

manufacturing problems

Here, we’re going to look at some of the challenges specific to project teams working in the manufacturing industry—and how to solve these problems using project management practices and a dynamic tool.

1. Managing Stakeholder Expectations

It’s always tricky to manage a disparate set of demands, visions and expectations on any project; but it’s even trickier in manufacturing. A common problem is that stakeholders have a tendency to set unrealistic deadlines and make unreasonable demands—and through no fault of their own, really. This happens because expectations aren’t set early on in the project.

For example, a stakeholder responds to a date the customer requests, without knowing how long it takes to complete the work. And then you’re stuck managing an overwhelmed team who has to work overtime, and maybe even sacrifice quality, feature requests or more. So how do you set stakeholder expectations realistically from the very conception of the project?

Estimate work and share the schedule

Get stakeholders involved from day one and make them a part of the process. Start by providing a schedule that includes thoughtful estimates for everyone’s work—by the people doing the work. If management challenges the timeline and wants the product launched sooner, you can have a data-driven conversation by using the schedule and estimates.

Encourage teams to estimate their projects as realistically as possible. Insert buffer-time and account for risks that might occur. When people estimate there’s a tendency to be over-optimistic which can set a team up for failure. Some teams invite outside experts to help them improve their estimation, and make use of methods such as ranged estimates or three-point estimation. Make the schedule accessible and visible throughout the project—so status is clear, and there are no unexpected surprises.

To share schedules, use a project management tool that offers a way to curate project reports with just the information your stakeholders need, like dashboards. This way stakeholders can keep up with everything throughout the project lifecycle.

2. Inflexible processes

Since manufacturing projects are highly sensitive to time, cost and quality, they can be extremely demanding to run. This often results in senior management asking for a very controlled and rigid project management framework to be followed. In my years as a project management consultant, I’ve observed in manufacturing of machinery, consumer goods, instruments and chemicals, that such a controlled framework has its place, but it can be a big challenge as well.

The downside of a controlled environment is that project teams have to commit to a solution and a timeline upfront. Consequently, they’re left with little scope to make adjustments as the project evolves and new information comes to light. Imagine for instance that you are running an 18-month project to design and produce a new type of consumer appliance and you have to commit to the design and plan very early on without the ability to later adjust it. Now that’s a challenge!

Use a dynamic scheduling tool and test early on

There is a way to address inflexible processes while still satisfying senior management’s need for control. Allow teams to experiment more up front and to iterate through the solution to prove the concept before they commit and lock down the design and manufacturing process. In other words, a longer inception phase with some trial-and-error, and with the view of driving down risk and uncertainly early on can be a win-win for all parties.

Build this time into your plan from the get-go. And use a scheduling tool that is adaptable and dynamic—one that updates automatically every time a change is made. This way the team can keep up with changes as they occur and respond accordingly earlier on in the process to meet hard delivery dates.

To keep your team a step ahead of fluctuating schedules, use a project management platform that builds uncertainty and predictive finish dates into the scheduling engine.

3. Change management

The more a team experiments and creates physical prototypes that can be assessed by their clients, the less likely their clients are to change their minds—or to ask for new features. But even the best of prototypes and the tightest of scope statements won’t protect against changes.

Change requests are an inherent part of product development, and they’re bound to happen—either because of wrong assumptions, unexpected constraints from the vendor, a change in the marketplace or a change in the client’s strategy. Imagine for instance that a new technological advance in the marketplace will make your planned product look markedly inferior. You have to respond, and make the adjustments. Otherwise, you could be working on a project that is out of date upon delivery.

Get buy-in for all hands on deck

If a project needs to be fast-tracked it’s imperative that the path of escalation is clear and that the project has an effective steering committee and decision-making forum. Research by PMI shows that senior level buy-in is one of the most significant factors for success on projects. Also, if the team really must deliver sooner than they’re comfortable with, the team leader can ask for dedicated resources all the way through the project and ensure that issues can be unblocked and decisions made swiftly by management.

Use project management software that integrates resource management features like workload reports and resource leveling into the project plan.

4. Ownership

A project might have many different departments involved during the project lifecycle, from market research, R&D, production to sales, marketing and distribution. For the project to be delivered successfully these different departments need to collaborate instead of operating within each of their silos. One particular decision that’s important to get right, is deciding who should lead the project.

In most cases, a technical project manager will lead the project because the majority of the effort is focused on designing and producing a technical product. But when a technical project manager is in charge, the risk is that he or she focuses on the technical aspects only and forgets about the business case, the market need, sales and distribution.

In some companies, project management responsibility is transferred from one department to another as the project passes through the different departments; but then, a sense of continuity and overall accountability suffers as no one has the end-to-end view.

Consider sales and marketing

Another option is to have someone from Sales or Marketing (or the commercial department) lead the project. Due to a strong commercial awareness, Sales and Marketing will find it natural to focus on developing the right product for the market and ensuring that the business case stacks up. These team members aren’t technical experts they aren’t equipped to lead the technical aspects of the project, but they can still be excellent owners of the project from beginning to end as long as they work with a strong technical lead.

In my experience, many organizations would benefit from choosing a project manager from sales and marketing, instead of forcing an excellent technical manager to also own the many milestones that aren’t technical.

5. Managing Supply Chain Complexity

Adding contractors, vendors and additional third parties to the production process increases the risk of error and miscommunication exponentially. Not only do you have production work occurring in different locations by different teams, each team might be using their own tracking software for their scope of work. Accounting for all the moving parts—materials, people, teams, quality, supply chains, product cycles, etc.—gets tricky.

Historically, manufacturing organizations have used tools that are driven by fixed start and end dates. They’re too rigid to accommodate the changes inherent to project and production work. The schedule is often overseen by one person, so the rest of the team—and teams—don’t have visibility into what’s happening. Plus, manual updates are laborious and can’t keep up with the rate of change. So, as priorities shift, and events occur that delay production or shipping, there’s no way for teams to see this reflected in the project schedule and react immediately.

Use collaborative software with visibility for everyone
The best fix for seeing what teams are doing across the production process and the globe is to find a project management tool that’s collaborative and provides visibility for all. This way, anyone at any time can access the project schedule, see where progress and status stands, and follow communication strings that relay important information.

This is the best front-line defense to knowing what’s going on with all your multiple vendors and manage dependencies. If all the vendors—and the project teams—can access the same project management tool, it takes away the blinders and lets everyone see how various aspects of the production are going.

Focus on the Work That Makes a Difference

Manufacturing projects are complex and filled with endless challenges—in a good way! The work is innovative, creative, hugely collaborative and global; and it’s all those moving parts that makes the industry such an exciting one to be part of. What teams need is a dynamic project management system that can respond as fluidly to the changes and unexpected occurrences that are part of manufacturing project life cycles. By taking out some of the stressful uncertainties and reactive demands, teams can focus on making a product that best meets the customer needs day after day.

Is your project management process working as effectively as it could? Find out! Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment.  

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How to Lead Your Team Through a Transition

If you’ve ever tried to be a change agent at work, you know the kind of resistance you’re up against. You could be recommending a new work process or project management tool that will greatly improve the business—and you’ll champion it—and people will suddenly get very busy.

project team transition

Asking a team to give up a work process they’re used to—even if it’s highly flawed—and learn something new can feel overwhelming for teams that already have a lot to do.

Yet, when people do agree to a change, it’s the transition process that gets tricky.

In the world of transition management, there are three recognized phases of transition. For anyone leading a change initiative, the more you understand the practical and emotional journey that your team members might be going through, the more effectively you can shepherd your team through the transition.

Keep in mind that everyone goes through the three phases at their own speed. It’s like a marathon, where the racers spread out over time. In your case, it’s important to keep your eye on the players and help them through the process.

Here are the three phases of transition, and how acknowledging each one can help you have your own successful transition to a new and better way of working.

Phase 1: Letting Go

The first phase of transition is letting go of the existing process or tool. At a practical level this is about finishing off outstanding tasks and phasing out any work done under the old regime. But there’s a lot more going on at the emotional level. Team members may mourn the loss of a system or a process that they’re used to. No matter how limiting or problematic the outgoing system, people understand it and feel safe using it. And most of us like to operate within our comfort zone—even if this limits growth or evolution opportunities.

Tips for getting through:

Show as much empathy as you can.  Acknowledge how your team members feel about the change, and help them come to terms with giving up a system they’ve come to depend on. Be aware that people can get stuck in phase one if you don’t listen to them or take their concerns seriously. It’s going to be harder for some people to experience a change to their daily routine. So take the time to understand what people are going through and ask them how they feel.

Phase 2: Passing Over Uncertainty

In the second phase people have let go of the old and are actively working toward the change. Now you have people implementing the new process or new software tool. But things haven’t quite settled or solidified yet. Team members continue to navigate the uncertainty between what was, and the emergence of the new rules of the road. There are still many questions, which can be frustrating for those who like predictability and routine.

Tips for getting through:

Acknowledge the ambiguity that exists while implementing strategies to bridge the gap from old to new. You can do this by openly recognizing that some questions are still unanswered and by inviting the team to help answer them. It’s not up to the team leader alone to define the new processes and resolve issues, but for the team as a collective to work through the queries that come up. During this phase, it’s important to strike the right balance between asking questions and providing answers. Asking the right questions enable team members to take ownership of solutions; providing answers will establish some security and certainty as the vision of change unfolds.

During this phase it helps to remove obstacles. If you’re implementing a new software, provide training, and have product experts at hand to support the team. Continue to listen to people’s concerns and reward people for making the change happen.

Phase 3: The New Beginning

This “New Beginning” phase happens when the change has been fully accepted and is operating effectively within the new environment. Team members are emotionally on board and are creating new habits that can be sustained. A new comfort zone is emerging that needs to be strengthened so that people don’t revert back to phase two.

Tips for getting through:

To support team members through the New Beginning phase, it’s important that you reinforce and sustain the change through people, systems and processes. Collaborate with individual team members to set short-term goals that are easy to achieve and that generate quick wins. It’s incredibly rewarding to see tangible results being implemented. Don’t let up too early as on-going progress is required to keep the momentum.

To make the change stick, embed it into your corporate culture and the organization’s day-to-day work—if you can. Continue to empower and engage people, by making them feel part of your new process. Encourage them to organize trainings ad workshops, or to give feedback on improvements to the new system. Make people feel like their contribution is part of the team’s success—this alone will make a big difference!

Are you wondering whether your project management process is working for you? Here’s a way to find out—take our 9-question diagnostic, the Project Management Health Check.

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How to Become a More Challenging Project Leader

If you want to be a strong project manager and leader, you need to know how to challenge and support your team members in equal measure. This means that you are able to set clear performance targets that stretch the individual while at the same time providing them with the support they need to reach their targets. While it might sound easy in theory, it’s far more difficult in practice.

project leader

During my years of project management coaching, I’ve come across a large number of PMs who feel competent in the area of being supportive and nurturing, but find it far harder to be challenging and to set the standard. When these leaders try to challenge a team member—for example holding them accountable to goals—they often lose their confidence in the process, which leads to questioning themselves or stopping in their tracks because they fear that their words will be too harsh and hurtful.

Inside these leaders know what they want to say, but they have difficulties formulating the words because they worry they’ll either upset the other person or the words will be taken in the wrong way. As many project managers put a high value on personal relationships and harmony, they end up holding themselves back when they have to deliver a message that could be interpreted as critical. For some leaders, when they do say something direct or challenging, they become overly apologetic afterward and backtrack. The result: delivering mixed messages, which is not a strong position to lead from.

Why your team needs to be challenged

If you recognize yourself in the above description, you first need to consider that you may well be doing people a disfavor by not holding them to account. If you let people coast or get away with poor performance you are contributing to their decay.

For the most part, your team members will find it motivating to learn and grow and to know that you, their manager, will expect the best from them. In addition, these individuals will feel more confident and in demand if their skills, abilities and performance are on par with—or better than—that of their peers.

If you challenge people to stretch and move outside of their comfort zone in the right way, you’re helping them in their career. What you also need to remember is that with your continued support you team members will be well placed to meet the expectations you’re setting. I’m in no way implying that you should begin to be a hard-nosed boss and that you should stop being supportive.

Set expectations, agree on the outcome

A really big point, which I hope will help you to appropriately challenge your team, is that you need to mutually agree on performance expectations up front when you assign a task. It’s almost impossible to hold someone to account if you haven’t been explicit about the details of what was expected and what a good outcome looks like. It’s imperative however, that the performance expectations are mutually agreed upon, and that it isn’t just the project manager who sets the standard and decides what the task looks like and when it needs to get done by. If it’s a one-sided expectation exchange the team member will not buy into it and will not perform well.

But how do you agree to these performance expectations in a way that enables you to better challenge the team member? Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say that you want a team member to create a presentation, which she will give at the project kick-off meeting. As you delegate this task, ensure that you and the team member have mutually agreed on answers to the following questions:

  • What is the scope of the task? The first question you need to answer is what exactly the team member will deliver at the end of the assignment and what “good” looks like. To help you clarify what is expected from the presentation, make use of the MoSCoW method (Must have, Should have, Could have, Will not have). In this case it could mean that the presentation must be in PowerPoint, it must have 8-10 slides and it must be able to be presented within a timeframe of 20-30 minutes. Each slide should contain a visual element and should have a clear message or take away related to the topic. The presentation could be printed for each participant, but will not be provided in electronic format. The presentation will have screen shots but will not encompass a live demo. Before handing in the presentation it must be spell checked and should be peer reviewed.
  • How much effort is involved? Estimating how much effort is involved in creating the presentation will be much easier now that you have agreed to the scope of it by using the MoSCoW technique. The next step is to help the team member think through what the best case and worst case estimates are until you reach a realistic assessment. Don’t estimate the work for that person, but ask clarifying questions that help you both understand the reasoning behind the estimate.
  • When can the work be delivered? It’s important that you don’t set the deadlines and give team members full ownership of finish dates. What you can do instead is help people think through all the work that needs to be completed, what could slow things down, and from that information what date are reasonable to commit to. When team members set the deadlines themselves they’re more inclined to take ownership of reaching it and living up to it.
  • What could go wrong? Before you finalize finish dates, ask the team member to consider everything that could get in the way or prevent him from delivering the task at the agreed upon date. In other words, help team members think through all the risks involved and how to overcome or mitigate them. Not everyone is wired to think about their tasks and workload in a logical way, so use your skills to help them organize their work.
  • What support do you need? Now that you’ve agreed on what needs to get done, when it will be completed by and what the potential roadblocks are, it’s appropriate to ask the team member what support they need from you. Maybe she would like to practice a dry run of her presentation with you, or have the green light to ask someone a teammate to peer review it. If you want to stretch, challenge and hold your team member to account, you need to ensure you have done everything you can to set them up for success, so ask them what support they reasonably need from you or anyone else.
  • How, and how often will we check in? The last question is about how you’ll check in with individuals to assess progress. Regular one-on-ones are needed for team member to ask for guidance, feedback and support. What you don’t want is to come across as a controlling micromanager, so agree up front on how and how often you’ll meet and don’t overdo it.

For example, consider the following: Will you check in with each other every other day via telephone, once a week face-to-face or will the team member keep you updated with a weekly progress report. Agree to a form that will work for both of you and stick to it unless you agree otherwise.

Based on this kind of expectation exchange, it should be clear that you have set the team member up for success and given them the best possible conditions for delivering a great presentation. If an individual ends up not delivering what you both agreed to, you now have a contract to reference and a framework that will help you hold team members accountable.

The big difference with being an effective challenging leader is that you’re not holding them to your standers, but to the standards that you both agreed on. In truth, most people are happy to be held accountable for delivering results provided they have a say in their process and received support getting there.

Leading teams effectively is one of the many exciting project management challenges you face! To learn how to lead great teams and master the trickery of your job, download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

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The New Face of Project Leadership

project leadership

Leadership has changed over the years.

Fifteen years ago, being a good project leader wasn’t necessarily the same as being a good project leader today. There are, of course, certain aspects and fundamental character traits that have gone unchanged. For example, we value honesty and integrity in a leader as much today as we ever have; and we also continue to value people who inspire and unite the team, as well as a leader who can easily build bridges between team, client and stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the face of project leadership is changing – or maturing – as we are having to adjust to the ways in which we now work and do business. Some of the changes that we have to adjust to are that teams are now made up of people from different cultures and time zones – some of whom have never even met. In addition, people expect to work with greater autonomy and to be fully involved in discussions that relate to project objectives and client needs.

Other recent shifts in leadership relate to the speed of technological changes as well as the rapid pace at which our clients’ businesses evolve and have to respond to demands in the marketplace. As a result, project leaders and their teams are challenged to quickly innovate and deliver solutions that are rich in functionality and that provide long-lasting benefits. They are also required to be increasingly flexible when accommodating change requests during the project, and to be able to personally juggle the need to respond to emails and queries in a timely manner while working effectively and doing deep work.

And this is where the trouble begins!

That’s because many project professionals are stuck in the past, and struggle to make the very adjustments that are required of them in a modern business world.

From my work as a project management consultant and coach, here are the top 3 leaderships needs (and challenges) in today’s business world.

1. Optimizing time and doing focused work

Today’s world is full of endless interruptions that require project leaders on one hand to respond to urgent requests, and on the other to protect their time and be able to work single-mindedly on their most important tasks. Unfortunately, most project managers I come across struggle to focus on proactive activities and to carve out blocks of time where they do deep work.

Instead, they are drawn to the urgent and secretly love being the hero who resolves issues and puts out fires. The unfortunate result is a host of reactive project managers who are finding it hard to free up time for the most important parts of the project: building the team, understanding the client’s business, having that difficult conversation or looking to mitigate the things that could go wrong on the project.

To be productive – and not just active – project managers must learn to protect and optimize their time.

2. Understanding the client’s business

It has always been important for project managers to understand the context in which their clients operate; but these days, it has become even more critical due to the increased competition, fast moving world and our consumer-beware culture. Companies are heavily reliant on innovative products and services to stay in business, as they will be penalized by consumers if they don’t keep up.

Many people argue that project managers don’t need to be subject matter experts to deliver a good project. Although that may be true, it’s also true that they will never become leaders. Project managers without subject matter expertize can do a good job delivering what the client asks for, but they will never be able to partner with the client, challenge their views, help them make business critical decisions or appreciate the importance of adjusting scope in order to produce outstanding value to the business.

For all of this richness to happen, project managers must get into the heads of their clients, understand what success looks like and what the real business drivers are. When they do, they will see themselves as one with the client – not separate from.  And they will be more flexible and accepting of changes to scope where there is a good business reason.

3. Being truly collaborative and inclusive

The delegates who attend my project management and leadership workshops always agree that it’s important to be collaborative in their approach. But when I ask them how they kick off and plan their projects, most of them use an old fashioned approach of singlehandedly creating a long detailed Gantt chart in Microsoft Project. That’s simply not collaborative enough for a modern-day project leader.

The better approach is to get everyone together in a workshop or a project kick-off meeting – in person or virtually – to define deliverables, scope, objectives and ground rules, and to jointly create a plan, starting with the high-level milestones and drilling into the detail.

If the team is virtual it becomes even more important to establish a set of collaborative working practices, as it’s much harder to bond with someone who is located miles away.  Today’s project leaders know that if they want to get the same results from a remote team, they have to put in some extra effort. That’s why an effective leader explicitly sets time aside to build the team, to discuss how each person fits in and what they expect of each other. So in a way, remote teams are forcing project managers to become even better leaders.

Project leaders need to continually evolve and adapt to the changing circumstances of their environments, clients and teams. In particular, the modern-day leader needs to engage and involve teams who work remotely; to understand their client’s ultimate business needs, and free up time to work single-mindedly on their most important tasks. While not all project managers and team leaders are there yet, the opportunity is there for whoever wants it!

Part of being an effective leader is knowing how to face and solve common project management challenges. To get some tips of the trade, download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

The Two Styles of Project Leadership: Which One Are You?

project leadership

Being a leader can be considered both a position of power and vulnerability. You are in both a role of influence and one with high visibility. All the while, the effect you have on teams and individuals is meaningful. That’s why it matters to do your job effectively. After all, team leaders are often a big reason why many of us either stay at a job or leave.

But how do you know—really know—what your leadership style is, and if you’re doing a good job? It isn’t easy job to observe yourself objectively. Which is why it’s so hard to know what, exactly, your leadership style is and how you come across to others. Over time, it becomes slightly easier to connect the dots, as your self-awareness increases and as you gain more feedback from managers, your environment and the team members and other people you interact with.

My own leadership self-awareness has increased dramatically since 2008 when I started my coaching and leadership studies. Before that time, I was running a large team and was under a lot of pressure to move the project forward. I felt that my leadership style was democratic but a colleague politely pointed out that although I did elicit other people’s opinions, I would always default to making the decisions on my own. I know that his observation was correct and that I probably didn’t share decision-making because I felt it was my responsibility as the project manager.

Shortly after the workshop where this comment was made, I began my coaching studies. As a result of the intense studies of human behavior and peak performance, I became more inclusive and collaborative in my approach. I also became a better listener. All I wanted was to empower others. In time, I became almost ashamed of my previous management style.

In hindsight, however, I can see that although I probably was too directive and controlling in my earlier career, it’s also true that I later moved too much in the other direction. I became overly soft and understanding as I adopted more of a laissez-faire approach in the hope that it would empower the team.

The two faces of leadership
Truth be told, leadership has two contrasting faces that can be hard to combine. If we want high performance, however, and we want to develop our team members in the process, we have to integrate them both.

So what are these two faces of leadership? Challenging and supportive leaders. Let’s have a look at each one:

Challenging leaders
On one side you have the challenging and demanding leader who is excellent at setting the standard and telling people what is expected of them. These bosses can be very stressful to work for. They aren’t interested in understanding your situation or what support you need. And because these types of leaders are efficiency-driven, they demand that targets are met and that goals are achieved – and sometimes with little regard for the people involved in doing the work. It’s stressful! Maybe you’ve even worked for someone like that.

Supportive leaders
On the other side, you have leaders and managers who are extremely supportive of their teams and very nurturing. They listen to people, they are inclusive and do everything they can to give their teams what they need – be it one-on-one sessions, training courses, attendance at conferences, discussion forums, etc.

For these bosses, it’s the human aspect that matters most. They want people to feel good and be happy with their work. Their philosophy is that if morale is high then results will follow. The problem with this approach – however nice it sounds – is that supportive leaders can struggle to generate high performance, as there can be a tendency not to hold people to account for performance targets. In extreme cases, the supportive approach can lead to complacency.

Can you be a bit of both?

In my experience, project and team leaders have a natural tendency to be either challenging or supportive – but not both at the same time.

Managers who are challenging are naturally more task and efficiency-driven and sometimes struggle to relate to people. Supportive leaders, on the contrary, are instinctively more people-oriented and find it difficult to set demands, as they fear that they may fall out with people and create disharmony.

As mentioned, the best results come when managers and leaders can combine the two styles, even if one of them doesn’t come naturally. Setting clear performance targets and stretching people can be very motivating, and it will generate high performance if the manager is also supportive and able to give team members what they need in order to reach their targets.

How do you combine the two?

In practice, a combination of the two styles can be achieved through a shared leadership model where clear objectives, targets and responsibilities are agreed in collaboration between client, project manager and team members.

When this happens everyone has a stake in the project because they have been actively involved in defining it and planning it. That’s when mutual accountabilities can occur. In this scenario, it is not the project manager who pushes the targets towards the team. Instead, everyone is part of defining what they are going to be held accountable for and what needs to happen in order for them to meet their targets – individual and collectively.

The question remains where you are on the spectrum between being a challenging and supportive project manager, and if you are able to utilize both approaches. Chances are that you will either find it uncomfortable to hold people accountable, or to listen and empathize with people.

But don’t let that deter you. Instead see it as an opportunity to widen your capabilities and to learn a new approach. After all, growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

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

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