Category Archives: Tips

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.

Agile Team Transitions Are Not Always Textbook

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

Common questions include:

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

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

Traditional Team Organization

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

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

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

Agile Team Organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not very Agile huh?

Improving with each sprint

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

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

Transitioning isn’t textbook

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

Low-Stress Ways to Keep Your Remote Team on Track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping The Communication Going

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

Batch your communicating.

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

Block out time to speak to stakeholders as well.

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

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

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

Supporting Remote Team Members

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

Use tech to help you.

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

Encourage them to help each other too.

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

Staying on Track with Projects

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

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

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

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

Maintaining Motivation at a Distance

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

Then create a motivating environment.

Here are some ideas for that:

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

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

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

Ask a Project Manager: School vs The Real World

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

 

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

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

So, some tips for dealing with the new job.

Learn the jargon.

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

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

Find out what your colleagues do.

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

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

Do your job.

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

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

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

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

Connect your job to your course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Questions to Ask

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

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

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

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

What to Look Out For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s split your question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Elizabeth Harrin

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