Welcome to My Project Delight

welcome to MPDI became a project manager by accident. Quite an intro, i can hear you say. Bear with me. More than a decade ago,  the only opening at an organisation i wanted to work for was mysteriously called ‘project manager’. I applied, successfully passed the competition and they offered me the job. I hardly realised back then what  the job is about and what to expect. I was all smiles on my first day at the new job. The organisation did its best, but it was also new and in the process of organising itself and the newly arrived team. I continued to put on a brave face. Very soon an avalanche of a multi million Euro projects portfolio, i was supposed to “manage”, challenged my smile with a smirk: “Let’s see your talents now”. Needless to say that as soon as my previous employer got back to me, I returned to the job i felt comfortable at.

In time, project management became a professionally  delightful, although accidental, love. This perspective made me cherish my first experiences. I wish back then i had a mentor  or coach to talk to, a source of info which would explain the tips and tricks of the trade, a network of beginners who faced the same “smirking face”.  This blog is inspired by my younger self and the every day learner i am aspiring to be.

The kings and queens of project management will find this blog boring, and they are always welcome to share a tip or two.  “Tips are like hugs, without the awkward body contact” I once read next to a tips box in a Juice Bar in an airport. So are the tips on this blog. Sometimes they are just my two cents :). Anyway, let’s get tipping for a delightful project management experience!

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Thought of the week

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” Stephen R. Covey.

It might sound strange coming from a project manager who loves standard operating procedures and

streamlining. Some recent and not so recent manifestations showed me that by

listening to a different point of view,

embracing it and

acting on it together, in spite of our differences

is what makes a project great to work on.

Size and teams

Size matters. Not only in architecture.

How many people on a team is just right? Shall we go for a big team or small is the new big in projects? are questions popping up at the design phase.

The biggest team I managed had 20 people and the smallest – 3. The Palm Jumeirah Island mega project had teams commensurate with the scale of the project.

On the face of it, larger teams get more done. Yet, there is evidence that individuals in big groups actually perform worse. It is the “social loafing” syndrome: “someone else will do it. why bother?”. It is known as “Ringelmann effect“. Although it may not manifest in a construction project, I would think, when your client is a Sheikh .

So how many is just right? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has the “two pizzas rule”: if a team can’t be fed by two pizzas, it’s too large. According to Katherine Klein from Wharton University, the widely accepted ideal size for a working team is five people “If you go beyond five people the team starts to lose individual performance, while teams smaller than 5 people can experience awkward team dynamics and skills gaps”.

Smaller groups appear more agile, robust and pro-active. Yet, research shows, disagreements happen more in smaller teams than bigger teams. It could be the frequency of interaction. Or just the fragility of egos.

Through trial and error, I noticed three rules of the thumb valid on my mind in approaching the decision on the number of team members:

1. If the project needs legal advice and financial services/accounting and a candidate is competent in both, take him/her on both roles, for a blend of skills. It will save time and effort, which will be otherwise spent on collaboration or its failure.

2. The size of the team may not be a constant during the lifespan of a project. Each stage may need additions or downsizing. It does not preclude you from inviting everyone to celebrate the project completion and you can order more than two pizzas on this occasion.

3. Size matters, but more important are the quality and performance of the team members. Stay humble in expanding your kingdom and bet on quality. Find the best and nurture them. Not with pizzas. At least not only 🙂

team_size_97151_strip_print

Gender mainstreaming in projects: a case study

Project A was designed to respond to institutional strengthening needs of an association of professionals – let’s call it Stars Alliance – and to contribute to improving the quality of the profession. Gender mainstreaming was included in the Project’s Work plan as a cross-cutting theme, yet its practical implication remained to be investigated and followed-up. The Project indicators were not gender-disaggregated at the start of the Project.

During its inception phase, the Project team used the stakeholders’ analysis to understand their roles, needs and situation. At the start of the Project, 30% of the Stars Alliance members were women. Yet, there were no women on its board and there were less than 10% of them in other internal management committees. Women have organised themselves into an association, let’s call it WLA.

WLA was established in March 2015 by 8 women lawyers. It was a young and small association with high aspirations to promote gender equality both within Stars Alliance and on the legal services market. The WLA was marginalised within the Alliance and its voice was weak. None of its initiatives, including gaining equal treatment of women professionals within social security, were supported by the Alliance.

The Project’s Stakeholders Analysis increased the understanding that for the gender mainstreaming to be successful, the WLA voice had to be heard and its capacity had to be strengthened. Moreover, including WLA in the Project meant that it would have the same effects and impact on men and women, both at the level of capacity and skills. A number of gender sensitive indicators were introduced, for example the number of women in the Bar pool of trainers; the number of women candidates to management positions and the number of women elected/selected in management committees.

Thus, the Project team pursued a pro-active role in involving WLA in the Project. The Project insisted on including WLA in all consultations organised to prepare the Stars Alliance Management Road Map, draft it organisational Strategy for 2017-2022 and its Communication Strategy. The Project also included consistently WLA representatives in all Project workshops, conference and seminars, breaking down little by little the isolation previously experienced. WLA was also included in the Project’s Steering Committee enabling the organization to make contributions and participate in decision making.

In addition to that, the Project implemented a number of activities designed specifically to strengthen WLA capacity as an organization.  As a result of these, WLA prepared its own Strategy for 2018-2023, started to collaborate with a similar organisation at the European level, organised its general assembly on a regular basis, multiplied by ten the number of its members, gained space on the Alliance website (where it can regularly publish its news and make itself visible and heard); presented an alternative report on women rights situation in the country at the UN Committee for Social, Economic and Cultural rights in Geneva.

All of the above contributed to making the WLA voice heard within the Alliance and externally, empowering it to take gender mainstreaming forward to the benefit of the  profession.

The Project’s approach to increase the capacity of WLA brought two lessons learned:

a. the Project had to be ready to mitigate risks of occasional disengagement from the Alliance management in Project activities, when WLA lead-activities were perceived as challenging to the institutional culture that existed since its establishment.

b. helping WLA to form partnerships – e.g. with the European women professional associations – was an important part of the sustainability of the action, as it anchored it in a network of organisations, which share similar challenges and aspirations.

A difficult or just messy project?

A difficult project is usually a result of external influences and circumstances, beyond project team control.

Chaotic processes, blurred roles and responsibilities between team members, unrelated and stand alone resource-consuming activities, scattered resources make a messy project.

Mess is usually self-created and contributed to by team members in a laisser-faire type of project management. “Do not do today what can be done tomorrow” leisurely style.

What can you do if you find yourself in charge of a messy project?

For a “change”, you can create your own MESS:

Measure/monitor

Evaluate

Solve

Submit

Measure what can be measured: time to task completion, delivery delays, number and price of units for inputs etc.

Evaluate why is it taking so much time/ resources. Why things do not work in the team. Where is the bottleneck.

Solve things that can be solved quickly, for a team motivation boost.

Submit results to sponsor/client.

Keep doing it until sail is on course.

A project story: a project was dragging its feet for eight months, in a 18 month timeline. It had:

– three team members,

– a beginner project manager, with very little experience and no coaching,

– no activities in sight and lots of email traffic,

– an abundance of frustration between field and headquarter’s team members,

– a client left to wonder why it wanted the services in the first place.

After a quick MESS by the new the project manager, the project was recovered and reached 96% of spending. It delivered the promised on time. The solution was to facilitate the team’s access to inputs (international expertise in this case). The client was happy and asked to continue the collaboration. From MESS to mission accomplished.

What’s your experience with messy projects?

Nice project teams vs Respectful project teams

confirmation-bias
image credit Ted Bauer

– This is the nicest project team I worked with, my fellow colleague shared enthusiastically.

– What makes it ‘nice”? my curiosity jumped in.

– It’s the harmony. We think alike, act alike, talk about the same…

I could notice that they even wear similar glasses frames. Those black, thick, square looking frames. It’s just the fashion trend, perhaps.

I worked with very nice project teams and not-so-nice project teams. The former give you the feeling of daily comfort, cosiness even. The latter are like a good hot bitter -sweet coffee, with a long-lasting after taste. I prefer the latter.

These teams tend to be more productive, focused, diverse, authentic, out-spoken and result-driven. They are exactly the type needed to deliver projects on time, within budget and with lasting effects. The culture of these teams is of respectful openness and unbiased information sharing of any kind. They are truthful to themselves and the project’s sponsor/client.

I wondered what is behind, what makes them the way they are. The article by Jonah Sachs “At work a respectful culture is better than a nice one” offered insights and answers to my questions.

As a project manager, one has to ask him/herself: do I want it nice or truthful? Do I create and maintain a culture of safe sharing of information? Do I tune in my emotional intelligence to react to all kind of information coming from all members of the team? Do I have a ‘confirmation bias”? What effects these have on the project team members?

As Jonah Sachs puts it: “Those further from the centers of power risk more and have little to gain in terms of increasing group harmony by speaking up. So they don’t. To make matters worse, women, more than men, have been raised with cultural expectations that they will be always be nice, further silencing important but perhaps inconvenient contributions they might make. Nice workplaces thus quickly become tyrannies of conformity and inequality. ” more https://work.qz.com/1260571/at-work-a-respectful-culture-is-better-than-a-nice-one/

Measuring impact

I literally absorbed the article “AEI’s President on Measuring the Impact of Ideas”, which appeared in Harvard Business Review. The author Arthur C. Brooks, the President of American Enterprise Institute—one of the oldest and best-known think tanks in the USA – gives many insightful perspectives on measuring the success of think tanks on the ideas market.

I drew parallels to the development work where demonstrating impact was a challenge even before the “golden era”. Donors need to show evidence to the tax payers that they’re creating value with what they give. They need to see data. Having an intangible product or a number of short lived outputs impresses no one. The (hopefully positive) change needs to be seen and felt.

The article helped reminding that a clear and genuine metric for success is a good start in any development project. Yet, one tends to turn it, for a variety of reasons, in a formal ticking-the-box exercise or toss it all together on the “no-one-reads-it-anyway shelf”.  I found that by simply asking the members of the team “why are we doing this? how will we report against it in one/two year time?” helps in crafting a realistic and committing metric.

Thanks for the inspiration, Harvard Business Review! The link to the article: https://hbr.org/2018/03/aeis-president-on-measuring-the-impact-of-ideas?utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social