Category Archives: Leadership

7 Actions to Take When Joining a Project Underway

Many of us dream of becoming the director for a major program with numerous projects, a staff, and an opportunity to create something from nothing. In this dream, which I know I’ve had on more than one occasion, you get to select your team, develop the processes and procedures that will be used by the team, and shape the development of the Project Management Office. The ideal situation.

Unfortunately, this dream is just that for most project managers—a dream. More often than not, you won’t be able to pick your team, establish the processes, or develop the PMO. Instead, you’ll find yourself doing bits and pieces of these at the same time you’re scrambling to deal with a program that’s already under way.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of initiating a program one time. The remainder of the programs I inherited during the planning or the benefits delivery phase. Far from ideal, becoming involved in a project or a program that is already underway requires one to focus more diligently on a few key elements.

Taking Lead of a Project Underway

Project management is challenging regardless when you assume the leadership role. There’s a mountain of literature written about the skills effective project managers leverage when leading a project and it all seems to assume that you’re in the game from the start. This won’t always be the case. For example, maybe you’re hired into a new project manager role on an already awarded contract or you’re called on to replace a non-performing project manager.

7 Knowledge Areas for Leadership on Projects Underway

Taking lead on a project already underway relies on the same skills that you’d call on if you’d been on the project from the beginning. However, there are seven specific knowledge areas that are most important and will require your attention.

1. Evaluate the governance framework.

One cannot assume that every project or program will have a well-defined governance structure in place by the time it gets underway. Regardless of what phase you join a project, make sure you evaluate the governance framework to determine if it’s properly structured.

This means that the right stakeholders are involved at the right levels; the right meeting frequency is in place; there are clear terms of reference spelling out roles and responsibilities of each echelon of the framework; and decisions are being made at the appropriate level. On complex projects, it’s vitally important that governance is appropriately structured so that senior stakeholders are informed at the right time and in the right fashion for making timely decisions.

2. Discover the lessons learned.

A project underway will have generated some lessons learned, so find out what these are. Talk with project team members and key stakeholders who have been with the project since initiation to determine what the key positives and negatives have been on the project. Looking at lessons learned while the project is still underway will help determine if there are possible adjustments to be made that have been missed by the staff.

You can also bring in lessons learned from other projects you’ve successfully managed, or best practices used by other project teams, to bolster performance on your project. In short, don’t assume that performance enhancements have been applied by the project team. Look for opportunities and work with your team to implement them.

3. Develop relationships.

Project managers spend the vast majority of their time communicating with other people and developing relationships. When you’re involved on a project from concept onwards, you have the opportunity to develop relationships with other stakeholders while the project is taking shape.

When you join a project underway, however, you have to insert yourself into relationships that have already formed. The longer a project has been underway, the more difficult this is, as team members have more shared experience together.

Take time to identify the most influential stakeholders. Then, focus on developing relationships with each of them. The process for doing this will vary, so you need to apply your emotional intelligence skills so as not to make any social or professional mistakes.

I like to start with informal office calls in one-on-one or small-group settings. I follow this with working lunches or group dinners. The main goal is developing rapport with the most influential people outside of formal project meetings. The benefit from doing this is a more cordial working relationship during formal meetings and a greater likelihood of collaboration when challenging situations arise.

4. Establish yourself in meetings.

Early in my Air Force career I heard the saying, “Never let your lack of experience keep you from speaking with authority.”

I’m not entirely certain, but I don’t think this was a joke. As a second lieutenant, you lack real-world experience in leading people and dealing with situations. Yet, there you are, the officer in charge with people looking at you to lead them through the situation.

I think this saying applies for the project manager that joins a project underway. You’ll immediately be looked at as the person in charge and depending on the situation, you may be called on to make key decisions right away. This requires you to establish yourself quickly in meetings and other venues so that everyone knows you’re on the task.

This doesn’t mean you need to be overbearing or not listen to other people! Quite the contrary. You’ll need to really listen to others and take their inputs for consideration (see the last point below).

5. Lead the change.

Regardless of what you do as the new project manager on a project underway, you’ll initiate change. The very fact that you’re now in the project manager role is a change, so any adjustments you make in process or procedure will be a change from business as usual.

To ensure your changes are successful, be cognizant of the environment under which the project is functioning and adjust your leadership style to accommodate this. You want your changes to make a positive impact on the performance of the project, so you can’t afford to have them derail because of delivery.

Change management is an essential part of project management. It’s also a key component of effective leadership on projects already underway.

6. Focus on providing value.

As you assess the project’s performance and the state of your project team, look for opportunities to provide value. This means looking for underserved areas of expertise or leadership. Perhaps the project has lacked someone with a strong sense of project management fundamentals; here’s an opportunity to engage your team in applying standard processes and procedures. Maybe your team hasn’t been properly recognized for successful performance; here’s an opportunity to gain senior stakeholder recognition and develop team confidence.

Don’t invest time adding value to activities that are already well-served by your staff or other stakeholders. It’s not only inefficient, but may very will alienate some of the very people you want to build relationships with because you’re perceived to be taking their role! Consistently look for opportunities to serve.

7. Listen and observe…then act.

I’ve saved the most important skill for leading a project underway for last. If you’re successful at accomplishing this, you stand a better-than-even chance of being successful on the other six. Effective project managers tend to have a penchant for taking action. That’s what makes them successful when others are paralyzed by indecision.

When you begin leading a project that’s already underway, however, you need to take pause before acting. Most issues that arise will have a history preceding them and you need to know that history to act effectively. Just as important, project team members and influential stakeholders will develop a more positive assessment of your leadership if you’re perceived to listen, observe, and then act.

Face it, none of us are impressed with someone who steps into a leadership role and immediately acts without the full picture. There are only a few situations where this is warranted and you’ll know it if you’re in one.

Lessons Learned as a First Time Medical Device Project Manager

In 2001, I joined Calypso Medical as employee number 18. Our goal was to create a remarkable medical device that could track the location of the prostate to a millimeter of accuracy during prostate cancer treatments.

This level of accuracy is important because the prostate has a tendency to move unpredictably during normal bodily functions, like coughing, going to the bathroom, or passing gas. This makes it difficult to direct the radiation to the correct spot. Healthy tissue may accidentally receive the radiation, which can lead to increased side effects.

We called it GPS for the body. Rather than satellites whizzing around the earth to pinpoint your phone’s location, a sensor array the size of a pizza box hovers directly over the patient’s abdomen. This sensor communicates with three transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, that had been implanted in the prostate in an earlier procedure.

During treatment, the radiation technologist (RT) monitors the location of these transponders. If the prostate moves outside of the radiation beam, the RT is immediately alerted and can reposition the beam so that it is once again focused squarely on the tumor. If you know where the device is, you know where to target the radiation.

For this to work, we needed another system that could determine the location of the sensor array. Figuring out the best way to solve that problem was my job.

Walk a mile in your users’ shoes.

As is typical in small companies, everyone wore multiple hats.  If I wanted to understand what was happening during treatment and how it would constrain my system, I would need to figure that out myself.

[Further Reading: A Look Inside Project Management at StarFish Medical]

Luckily, a local hospital was very helpful and let me hang out with the RTs as they did their job. I watched how they aligned the patients and moved about the room and spoke with the medical physicists about how they calibrated and aligned the equipment. I needed to design my system to work with what was already happening. Ideally, it would be invisible to the RTs and patient.

Build prototypes to simulate products in real-world settings.

After exploring several options, I settled on a ceiling mounted camera system that would see the array and could figure out its location. I used three cameras, even though two would be enough, so that the RTs could move about the room and not worry if they were blocking one of the cameras.

I developed simulations and was confident the system would work. But a prototype is much more convincing and can test errors in your assumptions that a simulation might miss.

I built the prototype with commercial-off-the-shelf tripods and cameras and software that I wrote. In testing we showed the concept worked even if you blocked a camera or the targets.

I then installed my prototype in an unused treatment space at the hospital, and we were able to simulate realistic usage. This work convinced the company leadership that I was on the right track.

Choose your partners carefully.

Once everyone agreed that my concept would work, I was directed to select a partner to implement my concept in a way that would pass muster with the FDA.

The perfect partner would have certain features:

  • An existing solution that could be leveraged for our needs
  • Their team had the desire and ability to customize their solution
  • Their solution had been through the FDA regulatory approval process
  • Geographically close to our office in Seattle
  • Reasonable business terms
  • A team that would be easy to work with over the long-term
  • A company that was stable enough that we didn’t have to worry about them going out of business

Not surprisingly, no such company existed.

One company had an FDA-approved camera-based solution, but the solution didn’t have the resolution we needed and wouldn’t work if someone walked in front of a camera. Any solution they created would have to be built from scratch.

Another company was a spin-off of a university in Munich, Germany. Their solution was technically solid, but they were a startup with no other customers and definitely not geographically desirable.

A third company had a technically solid solution and several customers in the movie business. They were a leading company for motion capture and had worked on movies like “The Hobbit”. Their location in California was not ideal, but at least they were in the same time zone and a single flight away.

The only missing element was that their device hadn’t been through an FDA approval process. We worked with a regulatory consultant and the company to develop an approach that worked for everyone. It’s been over 15 years, and this partner is still providing the camera system for the Calypso tracking system.

Anticipate and prevent product failures using failure mode and effects analysis.

When designing a medical device, it’s critical that it works as it’s supposed to. The alternative can be the death of the patient. One of the tools that we used to accomplish this was failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), a structured way to analyze how a product might fail and what you can do to prevent it. In this context, failure means the product doesn’t deliver the required performance, not that it stops working.

For instance, if your requirement is accuracy no worse than 1.0 mm and a condition results in a location error of 1.1 mm, that’s a failure.

FMEA typically starts with a brainstorming session where you identify ways that failure might happen. Our failure modes included:

  • Changes in the room temperature causing the camera mounts to move, pushing the system out of calibration.
  • The radiation environment in the treatment vault (both gamma rays and neutrons) causes cameras to fail.
  • Partial obscuration of the targets on the array, leading to an inaccurate location solution that doesn’t trigger an error condition.

For every failure mode we stated a severity (how bad would it be if this happened) and an occurrence (how likely would it be to happen). For example, a failure mode that shuts down the system (like a dead camera) would be high, but not the worst. The most severe failure mode is one that could lead to accidentally targeting radiation to the bowel or bladder, resulting in serious side effects.

[Further Reading: Ask a PM: School vs the Real World]

An interesting failure mode that we discovered was exposure to neutrons, sub-atomic particles with no charge.  The process of creating the beam of radiation used to kill the cancer cells also created a flood of free neutrons that might damage our electronics.  I flew our cameras to one of the only two neutron test sites in the U.S. and exposed our camera to 10 years’ worth of neutrons in a few hours.

From that test, we learned that one component was sensitive to neutrons and needed to be replaced.

If we hadn’t done the FMEA work, our cameras would have started failing in the field. Until we figured out the pattern of failures, the cameras would have just been replaced. Once the root caused was determined, we would have needed to replace the part and recertify the cameras, delaying new installations. This would have hurt our reputation, which can be the death knell for a small company.

Take pride in your work.

There’s a special satisfaction of playing on a game system I helped design or seeing drilling equipment I worked on in action.  But nothing matches the satisfaction of talking to someone whose father’s cancer treatment was improved by a product that I worked on.

It’s even gratifying that the photos of the system never include my camera system. It’s a sign that I accomplished my goal of making my part of the system invisible. That helped prepare me to become a project manager, where our contributions are typically critical, but invisible.

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.

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.

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.

Advice for Project Managers: Soft Skills Needed for Success

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!


CEO Liz Pearce Shares Insights on SIAA TechChats [Video]

LiquidPlanner CEO Liz Pearce was recently featured on TechChats, a web series by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). The series offers a look into some of the most successful executives in the industry and what they’re doing to grow and innovate within their companies.
In the interview, Pearce chats with Rhianna Collier, VP for the software division at SIIA, about top project management challenges, the benefits of a data-driven approach to project management, and how an Agile approach can benefit software teams.

Watch the full interview below or at the SIIA website to hear Pearce’s take on project management and the software industry.

Liz Pearce Tells Her LiquidPlanner Story on Nathan Latka’s Podcast

Liz Pearce and Nathan Latka

Photo credit: GeekWire

Recently LiquidPlanner CEO Liz Pearce sat down for a quick chat with entrepreneur-turned-podcast star, Nathan Latka. It’s a fascinating, rapid-fire conversation about how LiquidPlanner started, along with an overview of some of the critical business data points that Liz monitors on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Latka, a successful entrepreneur in his own right, launched and sold Heyo, a social marketing agency earlier this year. Interested in all things business, he’s gone on to build a business podcast, The Top Entrepreneurs in Money, Marketing, Business and Life, into an informative medium that helps listeners learn from a wide range of executives about their approach to growing a business.

Whether you’re interested in entrepreneurship, or would like to learn more about the value of unit economics and what it takes to build a successful and growing online SaaS business, this is a fun and compelling story.

Press play to listen to the podcast, below.

If you want to know more about the company Liz has been steering to success through the years, download our eBook, “Introduction to Dynamic Project Management.

Intro to Dynamic PM




The 5 Top Challenges of Managing Small Projects

Challenges Managing Small Teams

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.

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. 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.

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 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.”

Solve the Top 9 PM Challenges