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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!

6 Top Project Management Books for Engineers and Manufacturers

While engineers learn a lot of valuable skills in school, project management isn’t always one of them. Many engineers end up learning PM skills on the job and on their own time.

If you’re an engineer looking to grow your project management skillset, you’re in the right place. To compile this list, we dug through Amazon listings, forums, blogs, and review websites to identify the best project management books specifically for those in the manufacturing and engineering industries.

[Further Reading: 5 Reasons Engineers Need to Learn Project Management Skills]

Critical Chain by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Who said business books have to be a bore? Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt turned the traditional how-to book on its head with this “business novel.” Goldratt explore his Theory of Constraints (TOC) through the story’s main character, a university professor who has just returned from a large corporation that uses TOC. Over the course of the book, Goldratt walks readers through the five principle steps of TOC. This is an excellent overview of TOC packaged in a novel full of character development, conflict, and the occasional dramatic scene.

Epiphanized: A Novel on Unifying Theory of Constraints, Lean, and Six Sigma by Bob Sproull and Bruce Nelson

Management consultants Bob Sproull and Bruce Nelson borrow from Goldratt’s storytelling concept to explore the advantages of using Theory of Constraints, Lean, and Six Sigma together. This book tells the story of two consultants who turn around an ailing company by implementing a unification of the three methodologies.

In the appendix, the authors offer a closer look at how the methodologies described in the novel can be applied to your own organization and why a combination of the three creates the best results.

Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood

In today’s workplace, most employees are expected to competently run and manage projects. The trouble is, many haven’t been formally trained.

This book offers practical, jargon-free advice for the accidental project manager. The authors use real-world examples of project successes and failures to illustrate the most important steps and practices for effective people and project management.

Industrial Megaprojects by Edward W. Merrow

When large-scale engineering and construction projects—think off-shore oil platforms, chemical plants, dams—go wrong, they go horribly wrong. In “Industrial Megaprojects,” Edward W. Merrow uses humor, conversational language, and 30 years of experience to explore why large-scale projects fail and what can be done to prevent this. While this book focuses on megaprojects, many of the insights can be applied to engineering and manufacturing projects of any size.

Project Management Case Studies by Harold Kerzner

If you enjoy learning from others’ mistakes and successes, this one’s for you. Project management guru Harold Kerzner dives into more than 100 case studies drawn from real companies to show what worked, what failed, and what could have been done differently. The book covers a wide array of industries, including medical and pharmaceutical, aerospace, manufacturing, and more.

Project Management for Engineering and Construction by Garold D. Oberlender

This book presents the principles and techniques for managing engineering and construction projects from the initial concerting phase, through design and construction, to completion. What sets it apart from other PM books is the focus on applying PM techniques and principles to the beginning stages of a project to influence the budget, scope, and timeline as early as possible. While other books dive right into the construction phase, Oberlender offers a solid argument for applying PM principles earlier in the process.

Bonus: LiquidPlanner Project Management Resources

How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums

Every month, project management expert Elizabeth Harrin fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog.

We’ve compiled our favorite columns in this eBook. Over 30 pages, you’ll get Elizabeth’s take on a range of project management and workplace topics, including:

  • Ways to get more resources for your project.
  • Strategies for juggling multiple project tasks
  • How to manage a micromanager

Solving the Top 9 Project Management Challenges

This eBook provides practical tips and solutions to nine common project management challenges. You’ll also see how LiquidPlanner helps you meet your challenges—and turn them into opportunities.

The LiquidPlanner Blog

Every week, we publish guest posts from active project managers.

4 Ways a Mentor Helps Move Your Career Forward

When you look at your resume, it’s easy to think of your experience in terms of years, title changes, pay increases―the substantial evidence of your career growth. But your growth as a professional is much more than just the numbers and titles changes. Our successes, failures, challenges, and even interpersonal relationships we build are the moments where actual growth occurs.

When I reflect on my previous jobs, I often think about the influential people that I worked with. In large part, my career growth is not due to moving up a career ladder at each new company. It was due to great mentors.

[Further Reading: How to Find a PM Mentor]

Looking back, there are two people who have had a great impact on my career growth. During my first week at a previous company, I was attending an in-depth product training with all of the trainers on my team. The senior trainers were Roberto and Lori, and I was assigned to work with them on developing a new training program for this product. Not knowing anything or anyone that first week, I listened and observed them a lot. I thought to myself, “These two are so fun and engaging! I’ll never be as good at training as they are.”

That was just the beginning of some great memories working with, and learning from, Roberto and Lori. I’ll share the specific ways that these two helped me move forward in my career because of their mentorship and coaching.

1. See things from a different perspective.

I remember a couple times when an email came through my inbox that really got to me. There may have been steam coming out of my ears.

Each time, I expressed my frustrations to Roberto, who was a great sounding board. But rather than simply assuaging my feelings, he challenged me on the assumptions I was making.

Roberto was often the one who would bring a neutral perspective to our team meetings, as well. When we would have a heated meeting and tensions were high, Roberto was great at helping us take a step back and analyze the other perspectives.

His example has made me more conscious of the way I work and interact with colleagues. In a globally connected society, one can learn a lot from mentors who bring a unique perspective because of their culture, age, gender, or expertise.

2. Observe leadership, communication, and management skills that you didn’t learn in college. 

I’ve gone to grad school, taken a management course, and read a lot of books on the subject. But, I don’t remember much of what I learned in that class!

What I do remember is watching my mentors handle difficult situations and emulating what I learned. I also asked to sit in meetings or trainings facilitated by my mentors. They were always willing to let me observe them in action.

Good mentors don’t just focus on how to uplift your skills and expertise as they relate to the technical aspects of your role. Just by working with Roberto, I’ve learned how to motivate teams in very unique ways. I remember one time, while many teams were having outings for the holidays, our team felt a little disconnected because we were spread across four different states.

Roberto’s solution? A virtual holiday party.

You’re probably thinking the same thing I did. So cheesy. So awkward. He had prepared a gameshow where we sent him pictures of our home offices, and we each had to guess which office belonged to whom. (Confession: Mine was the plywood board propped up in the closet.) It was a fun way to break the ice with our team and bring us into each other’s work space even though we were separated by distance. He even got our competitive spirits going. I’ve never had so much fun at a party, and it was entirely virtual!

I picked up a lot of good tips from Roberto that day, particularly how to think outside of the box! Being able to shadow your mentor and see them in action is a great way to see what you can have ready in your bag-of-tricks next time you need it.

3. Gain a new perspective on ways to develop your natural abilities.

Like most people, I’m my harshest critic. As a very analytical personality, I am different from most others who work in corporate training and education. Many trainers are very expressive, exciting, and crazy fun!

I used to think the way I delivered training was much less exciting than my colleagues. But over the years, I’ve found my analytical side can be a valuable asset.

Once, I was working with Lori to document a new process for training the sales team. As we worked, I noticed several issues that had potential to trip up the sales team. Through Lori’s coaching, I began to realize that what makes me different as a trainer is also the greatest asset that I bring to my role.

Having a mentor who encourages you to harness your natural abilities, rather than pointing out weaknesses, can help you make the most of your natural strengths.

4. Challenge yourself to try something new and take your career to the next level.

Mentors aren’t just there to give you fuzzy, warm feelings. They should also challenge you to do things that are out of your comfort zone.

I once attended a weeklong Change Management conference with Lori. At the end of the conference, three teams were chosen to present their change management plans. As luck would have it, our team was chosen to present.

Lori turned to me and said, “This is you girl. I’ve had many opportunities to present in front of large groups. This would be good for you.”

At first I thought, “Whaaaat? We’re a team. We should be sharing this responsibility together!” But after I got over my initial gut reaction, I knew she was right. Lori was pushing me to do something that might scare me, but she had confidence that I could do it.

Whether it’s holding you accountable to implement that new process, trying to new approach to manage a difficult employee, or pushing you to present at a national conference, a great mentor will look for experiences that challenge you to try new things, learn, and succeed.

Maybe you already have a colleague in your life who is a great mentor–that’s awesome! How have they helped you grow? Make sure to let them know! Who doesn’t like hearing how they’ve made a difference in someone’s life?

If you never had a mentor, maybe this article has encouraged you to find one. If so, check out this post from PM expert on Elizabeth Harrin about finding the right mentor for you.

5 Reasons Engineers Need to Develop Project Management Skills

Here’s a lesson I’m thankful I learned early in my career:  successful engineering projects rely more on non-technical skills than technical skills.  It’s not that the technical skills aren’t important – they are.  One can’t design a building without knowledgeable, skilled structural, MEP, and fire engineers.  An airplane isn’t safe unless there are skilled aeronautical engineers involved.  You can’t rely on the quality of electricity unless there are smart electrical engineers involved.

The project a skilled engineer might be working on, however, won’t be successful unless there is an equally skilled project manager involved leading and managing the engineering project.

Think I’m wrong?  Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2016 report The High Cost of Low Performance: How will you improve business results? cited that $122 million was wasted for every $1 billion invested due to poor project performance. Other studies from Gallup and Harvard Business Review report equally grim statistics for project timeliness, cost overruns and scope creep.  For those familiar with project management basics, you’ll quickly recognize these as the infamous project management triangle.

While there are smart, talented engineers involved in engineering projects that go sideways, why do these projects still fail?

 Because engineering projects aren’t just about technical issues and rational factors, they are often more heavily influenced by non-technical and emotional factors.

Why Engineers Need to Care About Project Management Skills

I know that my undergraduate work in civil engineering didn’t include any courses on project management, let alone communications or leadership.  While I did have an engineering economics course, I recall that it was more about net present value calculations and internal rate of review, than it was about cost estimating, earned value management and how to develop effective cost controls for a construction project.

My project management skills were learned through on-the job training, or OJT. Most engineers who move into project management roles get there via the OJT path. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, if it isn’t bolstered with legitimate study of project management fundamentals, then it can become a bad thing in the right situation.

I gave little thought to the study of project management until fifteen years into my professional engineering career. In an attempt to give my career skills a boost, I began studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) course. Only then did I begin realizing that my OJT project management skills were inadequate in terms of the processes, procedures and general vernacular necessary to deliver successful projects. While I wasn’t a slouch in managing a project with regards to scope, schedule and cost, I was lacking in my ability to visualize how leadership, communications, strategic guidance, and even personal emotion, factor into the management of said project.

Engineers who think they don’t need to care about developing their project management skills will one day run into a situation where technical and rational means of solving a problem won’t work.

The technical/rational skills of engineers are useful for solving technical or rational problems on engineering projects, such as cost estimation and adjustments, forecasting, quality assurance or scheduling. These skills aren’t useful, however, when dealing with problems linked to project team members or stakeholders.  The reason should be obvious: project team members and stakeholders are humans or groups of humans.  Humans aren’t always rational, they tend to be emotional. So, the technical/rational approach to many issues faced in project management won’t always work.  In some situations, they will never work.

Benefits of Developing Project Management Skills

Spending time on project management skills development may be the last thing you want to add to your already busy schedule.  With the normal churn and demands of life and work, you’re likely not jumping up and down to throw another requirement on to the calendar.

However, I’ll give you two specific reasons engineers may want to reconsider priorities and extend the effort to develop project management skills on top of the on-the-job training or organizational project management training:

Career Advancement

I don’t simply mean climbing the engineering firm latter to partner or VP. Even if you aren’t interested in a leadership position in an engineering firm, you must continue to advance your career via advancing your skills. Engineers already know that maintaining one’s engineering mojo requires consistent study, reading of trade journals, and attending training courses.  Each of us does this to advance our career by advancing, or growing our skills.

William S. Boroughs had something to say about consistent growth: “When you stop growing you start dying.” If you stop advancing your skills you won’t literally die, however, you run a good chance of killing your career.

Studying project management will provide you with the processes, procedures and lingo to enhance your planning, delivery, controlling and hand-over of projects.  It will also begin to posture you for the other type of career advancement – movement into leadership positions.

Some of us are interested in progressing forward into positions of increased responsibility and yes, salary.  There are various salary surveys accessible on the web, so go take a look at the median salary variance between engineering and project management positions.  As a civil engineer, I’m looking at a median salary of $82,000 in the U.S., contrasted with a median salary of $91,000 for a project manager.

Even if you are truly altruistic and position, title, and compensation don’t matter to you, then the second benefit from studying project management should suffice as a reason to crack the books.

Increased Benefit for Your Organization and Clients

A situation I’m experiencing currently is a lack of qualified engineering project managers in the building and infrastructure sector.  Why the lack of such experts? My speculation is twofold: (1) engineers not interested in moving into project management roles and developing the skills needed to make that move; (2) retirement of engineers who have developed strong project management skills and no qualified engineer project managers available to fill the void.

This lack of skilled engineer-project managers means that engineering firms are not able to deliver, let alone realize, benefits internal to the company or more importantly, to their clients. What do I mean by benefits?  To keep it simple, I’ll highlight the big three we’re all familiar with: scope, schedule and cost. According to the PMI’s report I cited earlier, 32% of assessed projects experienced scope creep, 47% were over budget, and 51% were late.

What this translates to is a loss of money to a client, and most clients see cost avoidance or savings as a benefit.

Project management study develops skills that you can put to use in ensuring that a project is maintained within scope, kept on schedule, and controlled within the budget.  Yes, you can pick up skills from on-the-job training, however, you’re certain to miss some critical pieces of knowledge that you can only gain from a concentrated effort to build your skills.  I know this from personal experience.

Both clients and your organization want projects to be properly scoped and kept within that scope; controlled to a realistic schedule; and constrained to the planned budget.  Developing the skill set needed to make this happen will take experience, but it will also require study.

Here are five more benefits that engineers, their firms, and clients can realize from development of project management skills:

1. Improved Efficiency. One benefit I’ve experienced from developing my project management skills is increased efficiency in moving from initiating the project to closing it out.  Specifically, this means that I have a mental model for each of the five phases of a project, standard operating procedures, flowcharts and templates developed, and a general understanding of how the project will unfold. Taking the guesswork out of the simple items frees me up to put my cranial energy onto the not-so-simple issues – the reason projects have project managers.

2. Enhanced Effectiveness. The project manager is responsible for control of a project so it remains within scope, on schedule and in budget.  It is also to lead and communicate with project team members and a universe of stakeholders.  A project manager’s effectiveness is pegged to the individual’s ability to understand that 80% of what they will be doing day-in/day-out is non-technical work – communicating with someone; managing expectations of a stakeholder; handling a personnel issue on the project management team; etc.  Ones effectiveness in handling any of the myriad of issues that will arise will be determined by their skills and experience.

3. Can Help You Replicate Success. I love standard operating procedures, checklists and templates.  One reason is they help to increase efficiency and enhance effectiveness by eliminating the time needed to create them.  Another reason is that when an SOP contributes to a successful project, you increase the likelihood of replicating that success by using the same SOP on the next project. Experience will help you develop SOPs that become enduring, as well as understanding which ones must be modified for a specific project.  However, if you can standardize even 60% of activities from one project to the next, you open up a lot of time that can be spent on monitoring and controlling a project’s key performance indicators, managing risk and fulfilling a client’s expectations.

4. Helps You Learn Leadership and Communications. Project management, as you’ve read repeatedly in this article, is less about technical issues and more about non-technical issues. Developing project management skills provides you with the foundation for developing the other skills required to be effective: leadership, communications, and strategic assessment.  We don’t learn these skills in engineering school and many engineers will move through their entire career never learning them.  OJT isn’t entirely effective for building the repertoire of skills one needs to be an effective engineering project manager.

While I came into project management with a strong dose of leadership and communication skills from fifteen years as an Air Force civil engineering officer, it’s not likely you will be so fortunate. Study project management and develop your skills in these areas – and more.

5. Common Operating Language and Picture. The study of project management, especially if it follows the structure outlined by PMI or the U.K.’s Association for Project Management, will provide you with a common operating language and picture for how project management is supposed to be conducted. Once you have this foundation, you can make educated adjustments to fit your industry, organization, or unique situation.  You will also be able to look back at past projects and identify where the application of the body of knowledge of project management may have yielded a different, better result.  Why does this matter?  Because introspection and development of skills and knowledge is what professionals do.

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.

A Look Inside Project Management at StarFish Medical

Before a medical device reaches a patient’s bedside, it must go through a rigorous multi-step process that includes design, development, testing, regulatory review, and manufacturing.

Andrew Morton, Engineering Project Manager at StarFish Medical

StarFish Medical, a product development consultancy based in Victoria, British Columbia, helps companies large and small navigate this process and create breakthrough products for a number of medical specialty areas.

They couldn’t do this without some serious project management muscle.

We talked with Andrew Morton, PE, PMP, who manages the project management group, to learn more about the medical device design process, how StarFish Medical project managers collaborate with clients, and what it takes to be a project manager in the medical device space.

Can you tell us about the role project management plays at StarFish Medical?

We have a project management office. At a very high level, the PMO is looking for consistency on projects. Do we have the minimum set of processes on our projects? Is that satisfactory to be successful for both internal tracking purposes, as well as to satisfy the needs of our clients? Are the PMs following those processes?

Being a consultancy, we have a lot of different clients and customers. The needs are very diverse. It’s often a tradeoff between what might work for 50, 80, 100 percent of the projects. We try to balance the needs of the majority with the needs of everything.

What was your path to project management?

My background is in engineering. I have a bachelor’s degree in engineering/physics, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Most of my professional experience has been in project engineering or project management. I’m a certified PMP.

I started in engineering and was always very interested in the coordination piece. Bringing together the efforts of many different functions within the organization and doing that in a structured way to get something really meaningful at the end of the day has always been appealing to me.

Photo courtesy of StarFish Medical
And what drew you to the medical device industry?

There are three things:

Whatever I’m doing, I want it to be meaningful. It helps substantially. The day-to-day challenges are diminished when you think about the impact our work has on people’s lives.

Cutting-edge technology is a huge interest of mine. New medical device design is very much in that area. We are pushing the boundaries of technology and finding ways to apply that in a meaningful way for people and patient outcomes. For me, it’s also interesting to be in a cross-disciplinary design environment, where we’re working on hardware and software.

What attracted me to StarFish is the company’s great reputation for excellence. Being a consultancy, we work on many different products at any given time. Everything we work on is quite diverse.

How does StarFish Medical help clients from move medical devices from ideas to manufactured products?

Within StarFish, we have design, regulatory, and manufacturing capabilities.

We have a phase-gate design approach. Phase 0 is our proof of concept, development process. Phase 1 is detailed design. Phase 2 is transfer to manufacturing.

In Phase 3, which is less common, we focus on sustaining engineering. This a product that is already being manufactured. There may be enhancements or feedback from the market about needed adjustments.

We touch all of those in our different phases. Sometimes we only help a client with a piece of Phase 1. Sometimes we get involved in the whole lifecycle, moving from Phase 0 to getting the product to manufacturing.

Photo courtesy of StarFish Medical
What are some of the differences between being a project manager in the medical device world, versus other industries?

A lot of our work is around first of a kind development. I would put us in the category of new product development project management.

We are innovating a lot, and the path forward is uncertain. A lot of our projects lend themselves to Agile methods. We also do Phase 2 and 3 projects, in the manufacturing realm. Those are going to look like more traditional Waterfall approach to project management, where there’s very little design activities to be done.

Our project managers tend to focus more on the front-end design work, which I would put under the umbrella of new product development.

In regards to new product development, I think the major difference is that our products eventually need to be sold in a regulated environment, complying with FDA or Health Canada regulations.

While the regulatory piece is not uncommon in project management, I think it’s uncommon to be looking be looking at regulatory at the same time in new product development. We’re doing that from day one.

Photo courtesy of StarFish Medical
How are the project teams set up at StarFish Medical?

It really depends on the project. The one universal is that every project has a project manager. From there, one project can look very different from another.

Why is that?

Sometimes the client is one person, and he or she has a big idea. They have funding, but they don’t have any engineering capabilities themselves. They come to StarFish to do it all. In that case, there’s a project manager supporting them, and, basically, StarFish is wholly owning the design.

Or, a client has a team of their own. They may have a mechanical engineer and a software engineer, but they don’t have electronics and industrial design. They come to us to do those pieces. For that project team, we’d build around their capabilities. If the scope was fairly small, then maybe the project manager’s only spending half of his or her time on that project.

Sometimes a project may be a derivative of a project that the client already has. We have our own internal team, but we’re interfacing regularly with technical leads on the client team. The client wants ownership of the engineering, but they don’t have the resources at the time. Generally, they’re too busy.

The client team then becomes very embedded in the work that we are doing. We have to keep them updated more regularly than other projects where the client is very hands-off. We may have a weekly call or daily scrum just to touch base.

The teams look very different, depending on our clients’ needs. Having a dedicated project manager gives the clients a single point of contact.

What do you enjoy about your work?

The rewarding part is being a part of clinical trials. We get to see how products improve things. At the end of a project, our clients will hopefully be able to commercialize and manufacture the product. Being attached to this work is very rewarding. That’s true for everyone in the building. Everyone is very motivated by success in this space, which means it’s both helping people as well as getting products on the market.

Photo courtesy of StarFish Medical

What’s it like to hold that actual medical device in your hands, once you’ve gone through the whole process?

It’s hard to describe. It can be pretty amazing when you think of the effort that went into it and all of the challenges that were involved to bring it to life. It’s extremely satisfying. When you look at a finished product, it’s easy to underestimate the effort that goes into making these products come to life.

What qualities do project managers need to succeed in the medical devices field?

You need to have a good working knowledge of product development. There’s a whole set of processes around making something that wasn’t there before.

Systems engineering is also a key piece. It ties back to product development and what the FDA expects for regulatory submission, which is a structured design approach where you create requirements, specifications, and you go through the process of formally verifying and validating. It’s a pretty big part of medical device design.

On a personal level, one of the things that goes a long way is having the passion for improving lives. It can be difficult at times. There are a number of obstacles along the way.

That passion goes a long way in reminding yourself of what you’re doing, helping you reframe things, and moving past obstacles. The project manager is leading a team; that passion can help keep going and stay motivated.

When You’re the Company’s First Project Manager

In the beginning, project management was formless and empty, and darkness was over the work breakdown structure. The Founders looked over the face of the startup and said all is good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day (metaphorically).

Then the company grew and its teams were fruitful and multiplied.

Projects competed for resources, and everything was late. The Founders looked upon the chaos and were not pleased. They looked upon the multitudes and chose one who was more organized or less busy than the others and said, “It is up to you to be a prophet, bringing order to the chaos and leading the projects to the promised land of on-time delivery within budget. You must quiet the babel of squabbling the offends our ears.”

So you have now been appointed to be your company’s first project manager.

You may have never been a project manager. You may have never worked with a project manager. Your company has no templates, no resources, no software, and, most importantly, no culture of project management.

Where do you start?

Have a clear mandate from the leadership.

I once worked at a small company without project management and was struggling because of that, so I just started doing project management without any training or buy-in from the company leadership.

This did not go well!

I wrote the company’s first requirements document. As we reviewed the document, one of the stakeholders said, “I’m used to just complaining when engineering delivered something that isn’t what the market wants.”

I explained it was easier to build things right in the first place, which made a lot of sense to him. Having a requirements document reduced the constant churn of the product definition and helped the engineers focus on what they should be delivering.

Delivery dates were based on when someone wanted a product and not a detailed plan. I was sick one day, and on my return the scope of a project I was leading had changed significantly, but leadership expected no schedule slip nor did they allocate additional resources. When delivery dates aren’t based on real plans, then management can’t make the cost-benefit trade-offs that they should.

People were moved on and off projects with no warning or notification. No one set priorities among the large number of active projects. Not surprisingly, every project was late.

Without a mandate from the top, I was unable to control how resources were allocated or expected completion dates were set. I could change things around the margins, but not fix the underlying . Quoting from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Do what you can, make the case to do what you should, but if there’s no buy in, accept that and hope that your example of good management over time will change things.

Always be adding value.

For a salesman, the key is to Always Be Closing. For a project manager, you need to always be adding value, or at least not subtracting value.

Before you were anointed as your company’s first PM, things were done a certain way and it probably gave the individual contributors a lot of autonomy. They probably “knew” what needed to be done (and were probably right most of the time). They won’t appreciate you coming in, setting priorities, and “getting in the way”.

For you to do your work (e.g. building schedules and writing status reports), they’ll need to spend time sharing their expertise and knowledge. If they don’t see the value project management adds, they’ll see this as “wasting” their time that should be spent doing valuable work.

You need to be gentle but firm with this pushback. Make sure you get what you need to be successful, but be as accommodating as possible. Maybe you put together a starting point work breakdown structure and ask, “Where is this wrong?”

Listen more than you speak. Before sending a status report to stakeholders, send it to the team. This provides the team with an opportunity to check it for accuracy, helps them understand why you’re asking for their updates, and shows them that their concerns are being communicated up the chain.

Whenever possible, be a resource to make their job easier. One of the best ways to help the contributors is to create schedules based on input and logic, rather than management’s hopes and dreams. Having clear requirements can be a great help to the individual contributors as can going to battle getting resources (e.g. software upgrades, test equipment).

You could volunteer to take on vendor logistics and management. Everyone should know that you want to help and nothing is beneath you. Be careful not to take on tasks that the team doesn’t want you to do.

Methodically build your infrastructure.

You’re starting with a blank slate, which is a wonderful opportunity and a daunting task. You’ll need a task management tool (like LiquidPlanner), bug tracking system, standard-operating procedures, document control, and the list goes on and on and on.

Where to start?

Pick the biggest project management related problem you currently suffer from, and work on solving that. Maybe managing resource conflicts is the biggest problem, in which case I’d start with a list of every project in priority order, which can help manage conflicts.

If that doesn’t solve the problem, try creating a matrix with every project on one axis and all resources on the other. Add how much time each team member is expected to spend on that project over the next two weeks, and work with the managers to update this sheet regularly. If any person is loaded by over 85 percent, gather the impacted managers and negotiate.

If that doesn’t solve the problem, then implement a tool like LiquidPlanner that can balance resources automatically across multiple projects. In every case, implement the simplest solution that solves the problem.

Be a problem solver.

As you help your company eliminate barriers to success, the team will see the value you’re adding and be more eager to help you build strong plans.

When they see delivery dates based on detailed schedules they helped create rather than when somebody wants something delivered, they’ll be happy to contribute to the planning processes.  When engineers no longer feel pulled in five directions by three people, they’ll understand why you’re not just “overhead”.

Every time you solve a problem it makes the next one easier.

How to Win Project Buy-In from Senior Stakeholders

In the complex world of project management, some projects go smoothly and according to plan, completing on time and under budget, while others are fraught with problems. While there are many reasons why projects go off the rails, one of the most common is a lack of buy-in from the stakeholders, including members of the senior executive team.

There is more to senior stakeholder buy-in than simply approving the funding for the project. During project delivery, there will inevitably be key business decisions to make, and this will require the engagement of senior executives in the project to help make them.

Successful engagement can be at the mercy of the boardroom politics that can come into play.

Some executives will engage with a project as far as the sign-off stage, before shifting their focus on to the next new thing. Others, who by nature are resistant to change, may never really be engaged from the outset.  Then there are the newcomers to the top team, who, anxious to stamp their mark early in their tenure, start off downsizing the project portfolio.

Project buy-in at top level is invariably the result of inclusive negotiations that clearly define the various stakeholders’ roles within the process. Without that, senior executives can become disillusioned and ultimately disengaged.

So how does the PM win over the boardroom, and secure the buy in that is crucial to project delivery?

Answer “What’s In It for Me?”

Senior management stakeholders are notoriously time poor and under constant pressure. A lack of buy in to a project doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of interest. They may not consider it a high enough priority to devote what little time they have.

The PM needs to find ways to make it easier for them to engage with the project. The situation could be improved simply by rescheduling project meetings, or changing the way that project updates and other information are presented to them.

Their interest in the project is also more likely to increase if they can see the benefits. “Projects should be aligned to corporate objectives, but PMs need to be able to answer the ‘What’s in it for me?’,” says Karlene Agard, a risk and value management professional who works with project managers.

Build a Business Case

New technology is playing an increasingly important role in project management, particularly within the manufacturing, engineering and construction industries, and this too can place senior stakeholders under pressure.

Some executives view automation and technology trends with suspicion; they see money being allocated and spent, but no immediate, tangible sign of any benefits. The reality is that while technology develops at a rapid pace, many senior business people are struggling to keep up with it and to understand the business benefits.

The PM may have to justify the investment in new technology and automation in order to win their support and engagement in the project.

A compelling argument should focus on benefits, such as higher output and revenues and lower cost structures, along with greater opportunities to mitigate risk and pursue business growth. Computer simulations can be helpful in demonstrating to the board members the impact on things like shop floor and production line operations.

If a project is to have any chance of success, it is vital that risks are controlled and contained. Reassurance that risks will be properly managed and not affect the delivery of the project will also be pivotal to winning senior stakeholder backing. A robust risk assessment will demonstrate to senior executives that the PM has considered the project from all angles and put strategies in place to overcome any potential challenges.

“Projects that go beyond a business case to show leadership and demonstrate strategic enterprise thinking make it easier for C-suite buy in,” says Joe Britto, founder of management training consultancy innateleaders.

Make Stakeholders Feel Valued

Sometimes, a lack of senior stakeholder engagement with a project isn’t a resource issue at all. It could have a more deep-rooted cause. For example, an executive might feel that their contributions are not being considered seriously, or they suspect that the project outcome will not meet their expectations. Rather than voice their concerns or objections, they simply detach from the project and withdraw their support. In these situations, the only way the PM can move things forward is to have an honest discussion with them.

An effective strategy is to ask them for their feedback, for example, their input on any aspects of the project they feel have been overlooked, or suggestions on where things could be improved. This helps to build trust and strengthen the relationship, so that they can voice any concerns they have about the project.

Good communication is crucial to successful project management and has been described as the fuel that keeps the project running smoothly. Once senior level buy-in has been secured, PMs must provide clear communication around project timelines and objectives, and progress, in order to keep those executive stakeholders on board.

Agile Team Transitions Are Not Always Textbook

Project teams transitioning to Agile can often struggle with project roles and the overall team structure. Transitioning to an Agile team is a change in mindset, team organization, and the team’s culture.

Common questions include:

  • Where does the project manager fit into the team?
  • Isn’t the Scrum Master the project manager?
  • Who sets the priorities for the software developers?
  • Who gathers the requirements?
  • How does Agile “really work” in an enterprise organization with global teams?

To understand how Agile teams are different, it is helpful to understand how traditional teams are organized.

Traditional Team Organization

The traditional software development team is comprised of the following roles:

Role Responsibility
Business Customer / Client Provide the business process knowledge and requirements subject matter expert
Project manager Manages the project management processes to successfully deliver the project – initiation, planning, execution, monitor, control and close
Technical lead Leads the technical solution delivery and directs software development team
Application architect Designs the application architecture based on the company’s standards, computer infrastructure and network environment
Business analyst Gathers requirements from the business customer
Systems analyst Translates business requirements into specific system requirements for software development
Developers Design, code, and unit test the software solution
Test lead and test analysts Coordinate testing efforts and verify the software solution meets the business requirements
Infrastructure lead Coordinates the infrastructure and server setup
Database Administrator Creates and maintains the database

All of these resources typically come from different resource pools. Delays are introduced as each resource completes their unit of work and submits request to the next team member to complete additional work. If you’ve ever had to introduce new architecture, stand up a server in an enterprise data center, or modify a development, QA or production database, then you’re very familiar with the constraints in this model.

Agile Team Organization

If you pick up a book on Agile or Scrum, you’ll often read about the best teams are self-organizing, cross-functional, and self-directed. The Scrum Guide only defines the three main roles in Scrum: the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team.

Role Responsibility
Product Owner The single person accountable to the product and responsible to ensure the requirements in the product backlog are clearly defined, prioritized, and communicated to the team
Scrum Master Facilitates the Scrum practices, supports the product owner in managing the product backlog activities, coaches the development team,
Development Team The group who does the work to deliver the product

Teams transitioning to an Agile model will wonder what happens to the analysts, the technical lead, the project manager and other traditional roles. Depending on the Agile maturity in the organization, these roles will still exist within the team.

Remember the development team is the group that delivers the product and that can still include a project manager, a test lead or business analysts.

Many organizations talk about being Agile but don’t always have a dedicated product owner who fulfills the role of the product owner. In this case, the team needs to supplement with an empowered business analyst. The project team may not have implemented test automation or test-driven development, so traditional test lead roles will exist.

One of the concepts with mature Agile teams is the team members are cross-functional. This means the skills for business analysis, systems analysis, database development, test automation, and project management exist within the team instead of having separate roles for separate people.

Think about the last high performing team you worked with. The individuals likely shared all these skills instead of relying on separate individuals. My strongest performing team still had a project manager, but that same resource understood business and system analysis as well as testing best practices. The development team also understood the business context and had database development skills.

Conversely, my worst performing team had these skills separated across individual roles. To make a database change in the development environment, a ticket had to be submitted to the DBA team, then escalated because the team wasn’t responding in time. Separate testing resources were allocated for a fixed period of time and often couldn’t test in a timely manner. Consequently, velocity suffered and the team motivation declined.

Not very Agile huh?

Improving with each sprint

Building a team that is cross-functional, self-organizing, and self-directed is an evolution in Agile maturity. The teams I coach today still struggle with reaching this state as many organizations have the silos that prevent teams from working efficiently. Other teams simply struggle with the change from top-down direction to a team centric approach. The good news is adopting Agile practices provides the feedback loops for the team to improve.

During a product backlog grooming session, one of my teams was hesitant to provide individual story point estimates. Team members would look to the team lead for approval because previously the team lead would direct the work. It took a few sprints but eventually the team became comfortable with the new processes. That team is still progressing by adopting different Agile techniques, but they are improving with each sprint.

Transitioning isn’t textbook

If you are implementing Agile practices in your organization, you likely recognize it isn’t a textbook transition. Self-directed, cross-functional, and self-organizing teams don’t appear on Day 1. Until those skills exist within a self-contained team, supplementing with traditional roles is fine. Project teams need to deliver, and adopting an Agile or traditional team formation is still influenced by the leadership team and the existing team skill sets. There are many different approaches to project execution, but I know which team structure I’d prefer!

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.