Category Archives: Tips

The 10 Most Read LiquidPlanner Blog Posts of 2017

With 2018 just around the corner, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of resolutions and new year planning.

But, before we say goodbye 2017, we’d like to take a moment to look back at our most popular blogs from the past year.

1. 5 Ways AI and Automation Will Change Project Management

Automation, big data, and the Internet of Things were hot topics in 2017. In our most popular post, Andy Crowe looks at how emerging technologies will impact project management, now and in the future, and how project managers should prepare for these changes.

2. Need to Know Stats from the 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing Report

To better understand how manufacturers practice project management, we surveyed more than 100 executives, engineers, and project managers, resulting in the 2017 State of Project Management in Manufacturing report. This post highlights the most interesting findings from the report.

3. Engineers, This is Why You Need Project Management Skills

Fifteen years into his career as a civil engineer, Christian Knutson began studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) course. In this post, he talks about how his newfound PM skillset has benefited him and why engineers need to seek out project management education and development.

4. Boost Your Productivity with Kanban Boards

Have your standups been turning into sit-downs lately? You may want to try Kanban boards, says PM expert Andy Makar. He walks through the Kanban philosophy, the benefits of using Kanban boards in daily stand-ups, and how to visualize your tasks using LiquidPlanner’s Card View.

5. How to Run an Effective Meeting: Lessons from Pixar, Apple, and Amazon

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney, invites candor and controversy to his meetings. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos invites only the most essential people. Check out this post to borrow meeting strategies from some of the most successful companies in the U.S.

6. How to Get Buy-In for a New Project Management Tool From Your Executive Team

Have you found a new project management tool, but first you need to sell the idea to your executive team? Kevin Crump walks you through how to do just that.

[Further Reading: How to Build a Business Case for a New PM Tool]

7. 6 Top Project Management Books for Engineers and Manufacturers

If you’re an engineer looking to grow your project management skillset, this post is for you. We perused review sites, blogs, and forums to find engineers’ most recommended books about project management.

8. Good Questions to Ask in a Project Management Job Interview

Interviews are two-way streets. While they’re trying to figure out if you can do the job, you also need to ask the right questions to ensure you want the job. PM expert Elizabeth Harrin shares her favorite questions to ask and what to watch out for during an interview.

9. 43 Resources for New and Experienced Project Managers

This is an exhaustive list of our favorite podcasts, books, blogs, websites, courses, and MOOCs about everything project management. Whether you’re an experienced PM or just beginning, you’re going to find something interesting and valuable on this list.

10. 6 Simple Ways Project Managers Can Improve Their Writing Skills Today

You may not have the word “writer” in your job title, but I’m willing to wager that you spend at least an hour or two every day writing. Read this post to learn six easy ways to improve your writing game.

Thanks for reading!

Thanks for being a loyal LiquidPlanner blog reader! As we prepare for another year of blogging, we’d love to hear what you’d like to see covered in 2018. Leave us a comment or shoot us a note if you have an idea. We’d love to hear it!

Happy New Year from all of us at LiquidPlanner!

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.

44 Learning Resources for New and Experienced Project Managers

We’re entering that slow time of year for businesses. Unless you work in the retail or hospitality industries, November and December usually bring a quiet calm to the office. Clients go on vacation. Emails go from a torrent to a trickle. Desks are cleaned and reorganized.

And that’s why the end of the year is the perfect time to brush up on your skills.

To help you end the year on a strong note, we’ve put together this list of training resources. Because project management is such a multifaceted role that works with many different stakeholders, we’ve included both PM and non-PM resources. These resources range from free to thousands of dollars. The time investment also ranges from a few minutes each day to several months.

We’ve broken this list into five sections:

  • Books
  • Podcasts
  • Massive Online Open Courses (aka MOOCs)
  • Certificate Programs
  • Websites

Books

Results Without Authority: Controlling a Project When the Team Doesn’t Report to You by Tom Kendrick

It’s hard enough to lead a project when you’re the boss. Leading a project team that doesn’t report to you is a whole new challenge in itself. Kendrick walks through how to motivate a team to contribute to a project’s success.

Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not by Andy Crowe

Using data from a survey of more than 800 project managers from around the world, Crowe looks at what traits and practices make the top 2 percent of project managers rise above the rest. Readers will walk away with actionable steps they can take to rise to the top.

Delivering Bad News in Good Ways: Turn Difficult Conversations into Purposeful Dialogue, Positive Outcomes, & Focused Results in 3 Easy Steps by Alison Sigmon

While there are a lot of books out there about the proper ways to deliver bad news, this one is directed at project managers. Sigmon gives project managers a defined process to not only break bad news, but also improve communication over the long-term.

Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogen

Are you expected to organize and lead projects without any formal training to draw from? You’re not alone. More and more of us are being asked to PM. This book helps build a foundation, walking through the essentials of people and project management.

Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun

Drawing from his years leading technology projects at Microsoft, Berkun offers readers field-tested philosophies and strategies for defining, leading, and managing projects. If you’re leading technology projects, this is a must-read.

Adaptive Project Management: Leading Complex and Uncertain Projects by Andy Silber

Silber presents a new methodology, Adaptive Project Management, in this book. He explains how to succeed or fail fast for projects that are too uncertain to use waterfall project management and too complex to succeed with agile project management.

The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done by Peter F. Drucker

An oldie but a goodie. Don’t let the title dissuade you from reading. Drucker’s lessons about time management, prioritization, and effective decision-making can be applied to any knowledge worker.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen

The book that started it all; this is the definitive guide to GTD. In the age of multitasking and information overload, Getting Things Done is the book we need to find focus.

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio.

Over 592 pages, the hedge fund titan Ray Dalio explains the principles that have led to the success of his firm Bridgewater Associates. The book reads partly like a memoir, partly like an instruction manual for life.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

Gawande, a renowned surgeon and New Yorker writer, is a proponent of the simple checklist. At first glance, the subject matter sounds like it could be just another dry how-to book, but Gawande’s anecdotes and writing skills take this one to another level. He expertly blends storytelling, science, and productivity.

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

After college, Bailey turned down two lucrative job offers and instead funneled his energy into chronicling productivity experiments on his blog. This book contains the results of these experiments, plus interviews with leading productivity experts and 25 takeaway lessons that the reader can apply to everyday life.

Podcasts

The Project Management Podcast. Hosted by Cornelius Fitcher, the PM Podcast has more than 300 free and paid podcasts available for your listening pleasure. He brings in PM experts to talk about a wide variety of topics, everything from how to become a PM to managing unknown risks. Bonus: You can earn 60 free PDUs (Category C) by listening.

The People and Projects Podcast. Andy Kaufman interviews experts on PM, productivity, and management on his People and Projects Podcast. A new podcast is released every three to four weeks. Like the PM Podcast, you can earn free PDUs by listening.

The Lazy Project Manager. Hosted by Peter Taylor, this podcast began in 2013 after he published his best-selling book by the same name. Taylor has been described as “one of the most entertaining and inspirational speakers in project management today.” Topics and themes really run the gamut on this podcast, with new podcasts being released at least once a month.

PM for the Masses. Cesar Abeid brings a wide variety of guests onto his popular podcast. Topics cover everything from public speaking to methodology to careers. While Abeid hasn’t released a new podcast since 2016, the archives are still worth exploring.

Beyond the To Do List | Personal Productivity Perspectives. Hosted by Erik Fisher, this podcast explores different aspects of productivity, getting the work done, and living a good life. He invites real people to talk about how they implement productivity strategies in their professional and personal lives.

The Tim Ferriss Show. Hosted by Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, this podcast was the first business/interview podcast to pass 100,000,000 downloads. He brings on well-known personalities to dissect what tools, techniques, and tactics they used to get where they are.

Getting Things Done. Is your copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done dog eared and full of notes? Then you’ll love his podcast. Allen talks with people who are in different stages of their GTD journey and offers practical tips for building your own GTD systems.

Back to Work. In this award-winning podcast, Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discuss productivity, constraints, tools, and communication. Mann and Benjamin offer a nice balance of clever banter and teaching in every one hour episode.

The Moth. A storytelling podcast? Yes yes yes. Two reasons: 1. All work and no play makes for dull project managers. You need some fun listening between all of these business and productivity podcasts. 2. Storytelling is being called the new “essential skills” for business leaders. Listening to The Moth can help you learn to build a narrative that keeps your audience wanting more.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Coursera: Introduction to Project Management Principles and Practices Specialization

If you’re brand new to project management, this intro course is for you. Over four weeks, you’ll walk through the foundations of project management. This course is intended to prepare you for the fully-online accredited Applied Project Management Certificate from the University of California, Irvine.

Cost: $196

Coursera: Applied Project Management certificate

In this 6-month, online course, you’ll have the opportunity to attend instructor-led virtual sessions, receive expert feedback on projects, and access career coaching services. This course fulfills the educational requirements of the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential. By the end, you’ll be prepared to take the PMP® exam. This course is offered through Coursera and the University of California, Irvine.

Cost: $2,980

Start date: December 4, 2017

Alison: Diploma Course in Project Management

This foundational course is offered by Alison, another MOOC company that offers free education online. This course covers the basics of project management, from methodologies to documentation the phases of a project. Most users complete it in 10 to 15 hours.

Cost: Free

Start date: On-demand

Master of Project Academy

Master of Project Academy offers both free and paid courses that cover a wide variety of topics. We recommend checking out the “Project Management Training Bundle”, which gives you access to the PM certification courses, as well as the Agile and scrum certification courses. Master of Project Academy offers monthly and annual subscriptions. The courses are self-paced and can be started and completed at your choosing. Not happy? The academy offers 30-day money back guarantee.

Cost: Varies. The PM Training Bundle is $62 per month or $307 annually.

Start date: On-Demand

Oxford Home Study College: Project Management Course

This is another introduction course, great for those who are new to the PM world. This 3-part course covers: an introduction to PM, role of the PM, and the project lifecycle.

Cost: Free

Start date: On-Demand

PMI: Essentials of Project Management

This online, self-paced course will benefit anyone interested in learning the fundamentals of managing projects, with a focus on preparing for the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® credential exam.

Cost: $400

Start date: On-Demand

American Management Association: Improving Your Project Management Skills: The Basics for Success

AMA currently has 64 in-person sessions scheduled across the US between November 1, 2017 and August 6, 2018. While they provide an overview of PM fundamentals, this course is designed to focus on practical application of PM skills. The course is designed for those new to PM, the “accidental” PM, and knowledge workers who are interested in upping their management game.

Cost: $2,095 for members/$2,345 for non-members

Start date: Varies by location

Coursera: Agile Development Specialization

This course provides a beginner overview of the Agile methodology, specifically within software projects. You’ll learn to coordinate all aspects of the agile development process, including running design sprints, managing teams, and fostering a culture of experimentation.

Cost: $49 monthly Coursera subscription

Lynda.com

The online learning platform Lynda.com offers more than 90 courses related to project management. Many of these courses qualify for PDUs through PMI.

Cost: Free for the first 30 days, then $19.99 per month

Start date: On-Demand

Courses and Certifications

Certificate in Project Management (University of Washington)

This three-course certificate program is offered by the continuing education department of the University of Washington. The program is designed for both professional PMs and those looking to enter the field. UW has been approved by PMI® to issue professional development units (PDUs) for these courses, which fulfill the education requirements for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. This certificate is offered both online and in-person at the University of Washington campus in Seattle, Wash.

Cost: $4,790

Format: Offered in four different formats: Online self-paced; online group-paced; classroom; and classroom accelerated

Start date:  January 2018, March 2018, September 2018

Certificate Program in Project Management (UC Berkeley Extension)

This program from UC Berkeley comprises 3 required courses and 8 additional semester units of electives for a total of 14 semester units. The nice thing about this course is that you can start the program at any time and progress at your own pace. Most complete the program in one to two years.

Cost: $6,250

Format: Online, accelerated; classroom, daytime, classroom, evening

Start date: Continuous

Project Management Certificate (Colorado State University)

Colorado State University offers both in-classroom and online options for their certificate program. The five-module certificate follows the guidelines from PMI and provides a solid overview of project management principles.

Cost: $3,395

Format: Online; classroom

Start date: January 11, 2018

Certificate in Project Management (Georgetown University)

Georgetown also offers both in-classroom and online options for their certificate program. The program includes four required courses and two electives.

Cost: $6,570

Format: Online; classroom

Start date: Varies; see Georgetown website for a full schedule

Scrum Certifications

For project professionals working in tech and software, Scrum certifications are an asset. The Scrum Alliance offers a wide variety of certifications, ranging from practitioner to coach to trainer.

Cost: Varies

Format: In-person, 2-day trainings

Start date: Varies by location

Change Management Accreditation

Change management and project management often go hand-in-hand. Learning best practices in change management can help you prepare for the consequences and results of certain projects. The Change Manage Institute offers several levels of accreditation.

Cost: From $525 to 1,050

Format: Varies

Start date: Varies by location

Project Management Websites

Project Management Institute (PMI)

Everyone’s go-to project management resource is PMI. Their website is chock full of helpful information, including articles, white papers, online courses, and webinars

A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

PM expert Elizabeth Harrin, who is a frequent contributor to the LiquidPlanner blog, writes about a wide variety of project management topics. Her strength is writing about careers, leadership, and teams within the PM space. She also provides free templates and toolkits to help PMs excel at their jobs.

Age of Product

If you work in the software and product development space, you should bookmark this blog. Age of Product offers tools and insights for agile software development, product management, and lean methodologies.

Project Times

A well-curated site of helpful articles, webinars, white papers, and case studies about project management. Project Times isn’t afraid to post the offbeat (i.e., “Why Project Managers Shouldn’t Wear Man Buns”), which makes for a fun read.

How to Manage a Camel

Published by British recruiting firm Arras People, this blog covers topics around PM careers, project sponsorship, PMOs, and more. I’ve heard that the British perspective on PM differs from the American, so watch for that as you read.

Harvard Business Review

While HBR isn’t solely focused on PM, its focus on management, leadership, and careers is beneficial and applicable to any office dweller.

Herding Cats

Glen Alleman writes about a wide variety of topics related to Agile methodology and project management.

The Digital Project Manager

The Digital Project Manager offers how-to guides, tips, tricks, tools, funnies, and jobs in the realm of digital project management.

CIO

I’ve found that the project management section of the CIO website has some great content within the context of IT and tech PM. Articles cover everything from implementing an ERP systems to managing project budgets.

We hope you find these resources helpful! Is there anything you’d like to see added to this list? Let us know in the comments.

Project Management Monsters Around Us

Monsters aren’t just for Halloween. The undead walk among us all year round. Only on Halloween do they show their true faces. If you know what to look for, you can recognize vampires, ghosts, zombies, and Frankenstein’s creation (he’s not really a monster, just misunderstood).

In this article, I will teach you not only how to spot these undead creatures, but also how to vanquish those who haunt your nights and bring life back to those who suffered an untimely demise.

This doesn’t take the skills of a slayer, just a disciplined product development process.

Zombies

Zombies are the most common undead creature you’ll see walking the halls of your office. (We’re talking about the slow George A. Romero style zombies, not the fast variety of 28 Days Later or World War Z.)

They continue moving and sucking up resources, but they have no life in them and they never will. They produce nothing, and all they want to do is eat your brain. They need a shotgun blast in the face to put them out of your misery.

I once worked in an R&D group of about a dozen engineers, with about 20 active projects. On average, these projects would have required a couple of engineers to move forward at a reasonable pace. There were no clear priorities, so everyone worked on whatever they felt like or responded to the most recent request. The team’s effort was so diffuse that practically no projects were ever completed.

The way to deal with zombies is having a product development process that includes stage gates. As a project moves from one stage to the next, a review with the stakeholders is held. If the project isn’t on a path to success, this is the time to either rescope to something that can be successful or kill the project.

If a project just wanders around aimlessly without progressing to the next stage, you need to put it out of its misery and apply your resources to projects that can be successful. No project moves on to the next stage unless the resources needed are available.

Vampires and Ghosts

Vampires are projects that suck the lifeblood (i.e. resources) from other projects, preventing them from staying on schedule. Unlike zombies, vampires are worthy projects capable of being successful; they are just consuming more resources than they should.

Ghosts are the opposite, just a whisper of a project, starved of the resources they need to live. With sufficient resources, the ghosts can be resurrected.

I once worked for a company leading a critical project redesigning the flagship product. When I checked in with the engineers, I often found out they’d been redirected to work on a pet project (i.e. a vampire) of the CEO. I was unable to stay on schedule, and my project became a ghost.

Both of these monsters can be slain by agreeing to priorities and assigning your team based on these priorities.  If resources are to be reassigned, the leader of the project losing the resource needs to be engaged and the impact discussed.

Does it make sense to move the resource and delay a critical project? Leadership must understand the implication and make the tradeoffs based on the best-available information.

Frankenstein’s Creation

You’ve probably seen these creations: an arm left over from one project, a leg from another. These appendages don’t go together as part of any design. The result reminds you of what you wanted when you launched the project, just like Adam (the name of Frankenstein’s creation) reminds you of a human being.

When you’re trying to solve a problem similar to one you’ve solved before, it may seem like a good idea to reuse your early work. And sometimes it is. Other times, shoehorning an old solution into a new problem creates more problems than it solves.

To tame the creation, one needs only a solid design process with requirements. Start with the problem you’re solving and build up requirements from there.

If an existing solution meets the requirements, then by all means use it. If it doesn’t, can it be modified to meet the requirements? Whatever solution you use, it must meet the requirements.

Polyphemus, the Blind Cyclops

In Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Odysseus stabs the cyclops Polyphemus in the eye, blinding him. When Polyphemus lets his sheep out of the cave to graze, Odysseus and his men are then able to escape by hiding under them.

Similarly, we are often blind to what’s happening under the surface of our projects. We often don’t ask the right questions because we’re moving too quickly to take the time to pause and ask them. Or we don’t want to hear the answers, like “the customers want something different than what the product manager thinks they want”.

I once worked on a project where the laws of physics suggested that we would likely fail FCC certification testing due to high levels of emissions of radio frequency noise. So the experts in the team did a detailed analysis, which confirmed our initial fear, and they recommended putting the electronics in a Faraday cage, which would dampen the emissions.

Management didn’t want to slow down the project to allow a cage to be designed until we had actual measurements to prove that we needed a cage. Six months later, we were able to build a prototype that proved we needed a Faraday cage, but by this point the design was locked.

The resulting mitigation needed to fit within the space available, increasing cost and putting the schedule at risk. None of that would have been needed if management had looked carefully at the situation when the issue was first raised.

Once again, the weapon of choice is a solid product development process:

  • Risk assessments that force you to sit down and ask, “How can this project fail?”
  • Stage gate reviews, where the stakeholders come in and ask the tough questions before the project moves forward

Many Monsters, One Weapon

We are often in such a rush that we waste energy on a feeding vampires or zombies that are unworthy. We overlook that which is just beneath the surface. We settle for something that’s handy, rather than a solution that solves our problem.

A disciplined product development process can give sight to the blind, strength to the ghosts, and oblivion to zombies.

How to Get Buy-In for a New Project Management Tool From Your Executive Team

In business, change comes with a price. Even implementing a new tool or process that will benefit the bottom line comes with a price.

That cost might be hard dollars and cents, or it might be the time needed to implement the change. But more likely, the cost of change is both money and time. And the broader the implementation is across the organization, the heftier those costs.

You found a new tool! . . .

If you’ve found a new project management tool that you’re confident will solve all of your team’s problems and deliver project success, you’re going to have to sell the idea to your executive team. And, you’ll want to get their ongoing support to motivate everyone to use the new tool during the rollout and beyond.

… and now comes your first hurdle: selling it

The thing is, a lot of managers are good at getting things done, and are strong creative or critical thinkers, but selling? Not so much. And getting buy-in for a new tool is a sales job. Which means, once you find that perfect PM tool, you’ll need to close the sale.

[Further Reading: In-Depth Guide to Getting Executive Buy-In for a New Project Management Tool]

This takes preparation and planning.  You don’t want to end up as the person in Shark Tank who gets destroyed because he’s not sure if the numbers he’s talking about are profit or turnover. To help you out, here are a few best-practice steps to give you the best possible chance of nailing the sale and getting the green-light for your new PM tool.

1. Be the champion for the change.
Own it and drive it. Leaderless initiatives fail. If you just float the idea by a teammate or boss with, “Ooh this tool looks like it might be worth a spin,” and hope that someone else will run with it, the idea will very probably die right there. It’s up to you to bring the idea of a using a new-and-improved tool to life.

2. Do your research.
It doesn’t matter how shiny the prospective tool looks compared to what you’re currently using, you won’t know that it’s a good fit until you actually use it. Sure, on looks alone you’d probably choose a new coupe over a rusty third-hand sedan but what if you go ahead and buy that new BMW only to find it doesn’t come with an engine? Or seats.

When you’re evaluating new software take a trial, request a demo, watch the videos, read the customer stories and know your stuff. If the tool provider insists on money up-front before you even get a glimpse of the product, or only offers a limited feature set to play with, ask yourself what inadequacies they’re trying to hide.

3. Recruit your sergeants.
Chances are, there will be other teams using the new PM software platform that you’ve got your eye on—or at least they’ll be impacted by its introduction in some way. For example, you might have to contend with Graham in Engineering who loves his spreadsheets and might be reluctant to give them up. So to make your sales pitch a success, you need to get those heads of department or team leaders onboard early on in the change process, before you go cap-in-hand to the Executive Team.

These sergeants, like Graham, are the people who will rally the troops to your cause and spread the word on your behalf. Getting these key players on board strengthens your case when you pitch to the Execs. The new tool might be just what your department needs—but less so for other teams, so talk to every team lead that might be impacted; let them know the what and why behind why you think new project management software will make a positive impact; demo the product and tease out the questions and issues.

coworker buy in

4. Have a plan.
Rolling out a new tool is a project in itself, so give it the same respect as your other projects. Product familiarization and training will take up time across the business—time that has to be planned for or it won’t happen. Create a plan and then share it with your other stakeholders (Execs and department heads with sign-off power) and get their buy-in. That alone could make or break your implementation. Do resist pitching an overly-optimistic schedule just to get the yes votes because this will put too much pressure on the process, and yourself.

If you’re not sure about timelines, ask your product rep for advice. If she won’t or can’t tell you, find another tool. Also, when planning, don’t forget about all the required activity that follows the initial rollout: education, additional licenses etc. Rather than a big-bang approach, consider a trial phase with a small or non-critical project. This might be more palatable to the Executive Team and other department heads alike as a means of proving the concept before making a commitment.

5. Sell yourself first.
You’ll stand a better chance of selling your idea to the executives if they know you and respect what you’re capable of. The more people trust you, the more they’ll trust your recommendations. This is why the ground work is key; it helps you stand tall and present with confidence.

Also, consider your audience. You could be addressing people who don’t know or aren’t aware or even interested in the specific challenges you’re trying to address with the new tool. This is why it’s important to style your pitch so it will have meaning to everyone on a larger scale: more productive teams, improved profitability, more predictable cash flow through improved delivery to schedule, happier customers, etc. Demonstrate that you know all the benefits the new platform can offer—for the business as a whole, not just your department.

6. Demonstrate the tool.
As part of your pitch, show the Exec Team how the product works, and how it will work for your specific needs. This way you’re not just throwing abstract concepts around. Demo the tool with everyone you need to appeal to in the room, so they all have an opportunity to share their concerns and ask questions. Do not just email everyone asking them to download the software or visit the provider’s web site ahead of the meeting: they won’t.

 For your show-and-tell pitch, try and find a time slot that’s sympathetic to the Executive Team’s commitments. Chances are their days are meeting-heavy already, so try and find a morning slot and catch them when they’re fresh. It doesn’t hurt to throw in some snacks or treats too. I’ve seen the timely offer of a cherry Danish secure some sizeable change budgets!

7. Present a business case for implementing the new tool.
Pitch hard figures, not just over-eager optimism. Top management will be looking at ROI and little else initially. Of course you might get some interest if you throw in phrases like “improved efficiency” or “more accurate scheduling,” but drop in statements like “forecast savings of up to $70,000 a year compared to our current solution” and ears will prick up, trust me. You’re making a business case, so be business-like. Prepare for the tough questions, like:

  • What’s the downside if the new tool just doesn’t work out?
  • How long are we committed for? And at what cost?
  • Can we go back to the old system if this one doesn’t work out?

These are questions you should have already asked yourself and answered long before scheduling the meeting. You may have some anti-change die-hards, so make sure you have strong, concrete answers for them beyond: “Well, it’s just better; you know?” State tangible (and genuine) benefits. It doesn’t have to be all about the money. Maybe the new tool will improve what you can offer your customers, or make your company more competitive.

business case for buying new project management software
Selling change

Making change happen in business is a challenge—whether you’re looking to implement a new PM tool or trying to start an in-office fitness challenge. If you’ve discovered a piece of software that you think is the best thing since sliced bread, do your prep so you come across as passionate yet credible and informed. Remember, there’s a lot of sliced bread devotees out there. But just because change can be tough, don’t let fear of failure stop you from trying. In the end, everyone wants to make decisions that positively impact the organization.

Using the 5 Whys Method to Get to the Bottom of Your Problems

When something goes wrong, people always want to know why. Why did this happen? Why did this go wrong? It’s a logical question, but stopping there is likely to lead to a dead end.

To get at the core of why the unexpected event or challenge happened, you need to dig deeper. Instead of stopping at one, you need to ask why five times.

The 5 Whys

The core idea of the 5 Whys system is exactly what it sounds like: ask the question “Why?” five times to understand the root cause of an issue. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System.  “Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he advised his staff. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

Ohno used a malfunctioning welding robot as an example:

  1. “Why did the robot stop?”
    The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
  2. Why is the circuit overloaded?
    There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
  3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
    The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
  4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
    The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
  5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
    Because there is no filter on the pump.

If the questions had stopped at the first or second why, it would be tempting to think the problem could be solved with a new fuse or pump. But, the problem would have reoccured in a few months. In this case, the issue was caused by human error. Someone had forgotten to attach a filter to the pump.

By asking and answering “Why?” five times, you can drill down to the core issue, which is often hidden behind symptoms. “The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution,” Ohno said.

When to Use the 5 Whys

The 5 Whys system is most effective when used to solve simple to moderately challenging issues. If you’re using 5 Whys for complex issues, you need to be more careful. With complex problems, there are often multiple causes. Using the 5 Whys could lead you down a single path, causing you to ignore the other underlying issues.

Because the 5 Whys is relatively easy, it can be a great tool for kicking off brainstorming around a problem before you take a more in-depth approach.

A Few Limitations to Keep in Mind

The 5 Whys method does have some limitations.

  • The person leading the 5 Whys must have expert knowledge about the problem and possible issues. If the cause is unknown to the person doing the problem-solving, the method may not lead to the true cause. In the earlier example, it’s unlikely that someone with zero mechanical knowledge would have noticed the missing filter on the pump intake.
  • The success of the method relies on the skill of the facilitator. One wrong answer may completely throw off the questioning, leading to a wrong conclusion.
  • An assumption of the 5 Whys method is that there is that presenting symptoms all stem from one cause. For complex problems, this isn’t always the case. A 5 Whys analysis may not reveal all of the causes that are tied to these symptoms.

How the Process Works

Ready to try it? The 5 Whys method follows a very simple five-step process.

1. Assemble your team.

First, invite people who are familiar with the issue and the process you are trying to fix to the 5 Whys meeting.

2. Select a facilitator for your meeting.

The facilitator will lead the discussion, ask the 5 Whys, and keep the team focused on the issue at-hand.

3. Define the problem.

Discuss the problem with your team, and then focus on creating a clear and concise problem statement. To get started, answer the questions, What is going on, when did it happen, where did it happen, and who found the problem.

Write your problem statement on a whiteboard, leaving enough room to answer the 5 Whys below.

4. Ask why five times.

The first why should cover why the problem is happening. The method will work best if your answer is grounded in fact. No guessing allowed. Avoid going down the path of deductive reasoning, which can muddy the process. Answer each question quickly to avoid going down rabbit holes and jumping to conclusions.

Continue asking why until you feel that you’ve examined each path and can go no further. If your first why generated more than one reason, you can now go back and repeat the process until you’ve explored those routes, as well.

Note: As you go through this process, you may find that someone dropped the ball along the way. Instead of placing blame, the goal is to ask, Why did the process fail? This line of questioning will show what organizational processes need to be fixed.

5. Address the root causes.

By now, you should have identified one true root cause. With the group, discuss what countermeasures can be taken to prevent the issue from happening again. The facilitator may assign responsibilities for these countermeasures to the group.

6. Monitor your countermeasures.

The process doesn’t end there.

It’s important to monitor how effectively your measures solved or minimized the problem. If nothing has changed, you may have identified the wrong root cause and need to repeat the process.

That’s it! While the 5 Whys method was originally developed for use in a manufacturing setting, it can be beneficial in a wide range of applications. Do you use the 5 Whys in your work or personal life? If so, how was the method worked for you?

Yes, Your Team Needs a Project Manager. Here’s Why

During the annual budget cycle, portfolio planning or even the adhoc “just-go-do-it” project, project management resource planning and funding can be marginalized and even entirely overlooked.

I’ve seen budgets and resource staffing assumptions that state the project only needs 10 percent of a project management effort. Or, even worse, the team doesn’t assign an internal project manager because the vendor is responsible to “deliver the work.”

Executive teams can make the mistake of overlooking project management needs to make the costs fit the budget or poor assumptions about the project’s complexity. Underestimating the amount of project management required to deliver a project is a critical mistake.

Below are five reasons why projects need professional and experienced project managers.

1. Ensure the project is organized to achieve the project goals.

When I’m asked to consult on a project turnaround effort or help get a troubled project back on track, one common finding is the lack of organization.

Teams will indicate they communicate frequently, know the status of milestones and have a good handle of the key project issues. But, I often find these troubled projects lack an integrated project schedule, a published and understood communication plan, as well as simple project artifacts like an issue list, weekly status report, or an updated project schedule.

An experienced project manager will help avoid these problems by ensuring the project is organized for success. A little bit of pre-planning, clarification of roles and expectations, and structure goes a long way to set up a team for success. Without the organization, teams can churn needlessly thinking that they are making progress.

2. Establish a single point of communication and accountability.

Assigning a project manager to a project establishes a single point of communication and overall accountability.

Project management is not a support role. In fact, it is a leadership role that helps deliver the project. In most organizations, a business lead and a project manager lead the communication effort and share accountability in the project delivery.

When stakeholders have questions, the business typically leads the communication. But project-level details are the project manager’s responsibility.

It is also important the business lead and the project manager are aligned on the communication. I’ve worked on several projects where the business lead’s project status viewpoint differed greatly from the project management level detail. Often, it is the small things that matter!

3. Apply experience and lessons learned.

Professional project managers bring a wide variety of experience and knowledge based on thousands of hours of successful and challenged projects. If the team is implementing a project in a new domain or new business process, adding a project manager with past experience will be instrumental to the project’s success. Otherwise, you’ll bear the cost of experiencing those lessons learned the first time around!

4. Project management is your assurance policy.

You’ve just funded a one million dollar project that will take 12 to 14 months to complete. The results will improve sales and overall company growth.

Are you comfortable just letting anyone run the project? Wouldn’t it be better to provide professional, skilled overhead to ensure the project goals are achieved and if problems arise, the resource has the skills and expertise to help?

Adding a professional project manager (usually less than 10 percent of project costs) provides assurance the project will be organized and managed appropriately. I’d like to say it actually provides insurance, but even project management is a sunk cost on successful and troubled projects.

5. Cheaper to invest in the fundamentals now than later.

The reality is projects are hard. Projects introduce new processes, systems, and organizational change that the organization hasn’t experienced. Executives may be hesitant to fund project managers for every project as there is usually a team lead who has demonstrated leadership in the past.

Leadership isn’t reserved for just for project managers, as we expect each team member to apply situational leadership when called upon. However, it is cheaper to invest in the project management function now rather than later in the project.

When executive stakeholders finally recognize the project needs professional help, it is often too late to rescue the project and maintain the original timing. Providing a project manager upfront mitigates the risk of cost and schedule overruns. Assigning a project manager doesn’t mean guaranteed success. However, you will be guaranteed communication of project issues, delays, and solutions based on years of experience.

When projects go off track, the way to fix most projects is to return to the fundamentals of managing scope, time, resources, and quality. It is better to invest in the fundamentals upfront rather than paying expensive consultants to turn around a project and install those fundamentals mid-project.

6 Simple Ways Project Managers Can Improve Their Writing Skills Today

I’ve been a “professional writer” for nine years. I should be able to effortlessly crank out the words by now, right? Well, if we’re being completely honest with each other, I’ve spent 15 minutes on this intro alone. It’s a slog. Every. Time.

Writing is a hard skill to master (and that’s coming from someone who does this for a living). And just when you think you’ve got it, you find yourself staring at an ugly first draft, wondering where the magic went.

But here’s the good news: you don’t need to master it. No one expects literary quality from your briefs and emails. In fact, if you’ve done it well, no one will notice your writing.

In business writing, you have a simple goal: to clearly and concisely share your message. You’re not going to begin a quarterly earnings report with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Unless you’re an aspiring business novelist (Eliyahu Goldratt, anyone?), you can leave the prose to Dickens.

Why Solid Writing Skills Make a Difference for Project Managers

When I give this spiel to fellow office dwellers, it’s sometimes met with an apathetic, “Well, I’m not a writer, so it doesn’t matter.”

Hold up, I say. How many emails, IMs, briefs, and memos have you written today? Tweets? Facebook posts? Text messages? That’s what I thought.

You may not have the job title, but I’m willing to wager that you spend at least an hour or two every day writing.

For project managers, solid writing skills become even more important. The success or failure of your project hinges on your communication skills.

It’s likely that a majority of your team communications are via email, IM, or comments. In the past, how many times have you gone back and forth with people who didn’t say what they meant the first time around? How many hours have you wasted trying to decipher poorly written status updates?

Project managers also need to write important documents like project proposals and charters, training documents, plans, and reports. Considering these documents build the foundation of a project, writing plays an important role in successful execution.

Tried and True Techniques

Here are six easy techniques you can use to improve your writing skills.

Think before you write.

Sometimes we panic when we’re presented with that blank page. Just get it out, we think, as we furiously type away. What’s left is a messy brain dump of a document. While that’s a great way to kickstart your writing, it’s not a great experience for the reader.

Those extraneous details muddy the waters, and the reader walks away confused. That’s how balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, and miscommunication happens.

Before you begin writing, answer these three questions:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What do I want them to know?
  • What do I want them to do?

If you can’t immediately answer these questions, you’ll need to take a step back and collect your thoughts. Everything you write should have a clear audience and purpose.

Get to the point.

In school, we’re taught to spend our first four to five sentences warming up the reader. We then hit them with our main point at the end of the intro. While that format may have impressed your eighth grade English teacher, it’s not going to impress a hurried executive.

Instead, begin with your main point. Dedicate your first paragraph to a quick summary of the situation and the proposed solution if you’re writing longer memos. For emails, use the first sentence to summarize why you’re writing and what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re unsure, ask a colleague to read your email and summarize your message in two to three sentences. If he or she can’t do that easily (or gets it wrong), you’ll need to answer the three questions above and work on clarifying your message.

Cut out unnecessary words.

I once had a boss who was a former magazine editor. She was absolutely ruthless. When she’d return my articles, it looked like someone had squeezed a pomegranate onto the page. Red. Everywhere.

Her biggest pet peeve was needless words: very, like, that, in order to, suddenly.

The folder that you need is on my desk.

I’m reading the report in order to prepare for my meeting.

It’s very important to be on time tomorrow.

She taught me how to tighten my sentences by removing the unnecessary. Cut these filler words and your writing will immediately improve.

Empower yourself to ban the buzzwords.

Poor “empower.”

A word that once had so much meaning is now carelessly thrown around in business communications.

I mean, just look at this graph. From 1980 to now, the use of “empower” in publications has tripled.

Data from Google Ngram Viewer

Business writing is full of words like this:

  • World class
  • Circle back
  • Depth and breadth
  • Visionary
  • Disruptive
  • Innovate

While these terms are sometimes accurate for the situation, I’ve found that it’s more often a sign of lazy writing. These buzzwords tend to confuse or bore your reader.

Check out this handy “bizspeak blacklist” from Harvard Business Review for a list of words to ban from your vocabulary.

Read what you write.

Pretend that you’re the reader. Is your point clear and concise? Does it flow clearly from one idea to another? Or is it abrupt and confusing? Is the call to action obvious? Reading your work aloud can be incredibly helpful. You’ll quickly notice jarring sentence structures and words that trip up your reader.

Good writing is like music. It should have a rhythm. Watch what writing guru Gary Provost does here:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”

Reading your work out loud (or loudly in your head if you don’t want to interrupt your colleagues) will help you hear the music (or lack thereof) in your writing.

Read other people’s writing.

Finally, if you want to be a writer, you also need to be a reader. Don’t limit yourself to business books. Read novels, newspapers, blogs, longform journalism. As you read, take note of the writer’s style and structure. Think about ways you can apply these things to your own writing.

And don’t forget to enjoy it. After you apply these techniques, you may find that maybe writing isn’t so bad after all.

My Favorite Books About Writing

Check out these books for more advice on writing:

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

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.