Month: February 2017

Let’s Project some fun: Change Management

I was dealing with change management in a bank, which became a subsidiary of a big bank group. “Change management” was on everyone’s lips. A colleague from another department pops into my office one day:

– So when do we change the management?

– What do you mean? I was a bit taken by surprise. 

– But we are doing “change management”, right?

Dan Ariely: What makes us feel good about our work? | TED Talk – re-post

“And there’s an old story about cake mixes. So when they started cake mixes in the ’40s, they would take this powder and they would put it in a box, and they would ask housewives to basically pour it in, stir some water in it, mix it, put it in the oven, and — voila — you had cake. But it turns out they were very unpopular. People did not want them, and they thought about all kinds of reasons for that. Maybe the taste was not good? No, the taste was great. What they figured out was that there was not enough effort involved. It was so easy that nobody could serve cake to their guests and say, “Here is my cake.” No, it was somebody else’s cake, as if you bought it in the store. It didn’t really feel like your own. So what did they do? They took the eggs and the milk out of the powder. 

Now you had to break the eggs and add them, you had to measure the milk and add it, mixing it. Now it was your cake. Now everything was fine. “

Meaning + effort = happiness & productivity.


Let’s project some fun: from project manager to trainee

On a foggy autumn morning I popped in a training the project I managed was funding for a group of law enforcement officials. The trainer – a team member – knew that I will be coming. I took a seat in the back of the room, intending to silently observe.

A minute later, the trainer announced my presence: “my boss is here!” Good-buy to discrete-me, as everyone turned their heads to see “his boss”. The trainer then asked if I would be willing to join one of the trainees groups, as he was about to start the role plays. “Sure!”, I said and joined a group, with everyones’ eyes on me.

We finished the task and I made myself comfortable in the chair, intending to switch to “discrete-me” mode again. 

– Oxana, would you like to present to the class the outcome of your group’s discussion?

And I did.

– I hope I still have a job tomorrow, said the trainer afterwards, to everyone’s big laugh. 

Next time, I thought to myself, I will settle for a video-recording of trainings. And yes, he did still have a job the next day, and couple of years after.

Focus: a productivity’s best friend

“You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” – Rumi51bv2o2gtml__sx326_bo1204203200_

Written more 700 years ago, the quote resonates more and more with me these days.

Ann Flanagan Petry writes about it with surgeon precision: “In the workplace, we often fall into just the trap that Rumi describes. We think that because we understand how to be busy accomplishing tasks (one) we also understand how to be effective in our work (two). So, we focus on agendas, “to do” lists, and clearing out our in-box. But when we do that, we are missing out on the quiet yet critical, “and” in the equation: the powerful force of mindful self-awareness.

Attention span is the length of time you’re able to concentrate on a single activity before becoming distracted. The longer you’re able to sustain attention, the more likely you are to gain depth and quality in things like learning or creating. This impacts work and life in a myriad of ways, from increasing productivity to being able to express the best of what we have to offer. But how can we improve our attention span effectively?” (“Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness”).

Swiftly drafting Terms of Reference distracted to scribble  a project work plan and to respond to an email may sound a familiar part from ‘a-day-in-the-life-of-a-project-manager”. And to make it even farer from mindfulness, much, if not all of the above, is done in parallel, competing with the demands of the hyper-vigilance to attend to texts and social media. I do not contest there might be highly efficient people able to do it all and stay away from the “surprise” of the myriad of (re)work that follows, impacting the efficiency and job satisfaction. At personal and team level.

Becoming aware about it, either through introspection or during the job appraisal, is a first step. There are a number of corrective approaches to improve our attention span.  See for example, work by Ann Flanagan Petry v

Or watch Daniel Goleman on Focus: The Secret of High Performance and Fulfilment. Preferably without being distracted 🙂


Good to say goodbye: a story

If you look at the heart of the concept, it’ s actually positive. Sometimes, it is good to say goodbye. It is part of projects life.

In a project I managed some time ago there was a project officer whose job description almost matched mine, with the exception of accountability for project implementation and it’s results. She was three years older, with no prior project management experience. I was the forth project manager she worked with in five months. At our first meeting she told me she does not like the job. That was quite a statement and I assured her that with me there would be plenty of opportunities to grow professionally. Later I learned from HR that she said exactly the same thing at the interview and only accepted the job because she was unemployed at the time of the offer. She had a term contract, with a possibility of extension depending on her performance.

It is a flagship project of a major donor, A rated and with high expectations to fulfill.

I am not a solo decision maker when it comes to personnel. There might be biases, personal issues or just phases, on both sides. I talked to three of her former supervisors to learn of the same pattern of behaviour and attitude. Late payments, delayed documents processing, tasked ignored for months, unwillingness to work in a team, lack of corporate ethics and knowledge of procedures, negative attitude and denial at feedback, polite to internationals, rude to nationals, with no friends in the organization, counting others’ money …

I shared my concerns about her performance with my supervisors. I followed HR rules. I talked to a colleague whose experience in HR and team management exceeds mine and whose judgment I trust. He had a similar issue in a project he managed, with the difference that he had to fire the person, who had a longer term contract. He advised me to give her evaluations every two months.

I chose not to give her an optional mid term performance evaluation because we were in the middle of concluding major contracts and that she may take leave. She took it anyway. I delayed my family vacation to much latter.

So a month before the end of her contract, as per the HR procedures, I approached her in a friendly way hoping for a different reaction. “When 7 months ago you said you do not like the job, I thought you were kidding or just have a phase. You do understand that this attitude impacts your performance, don’t you?”. She only said with sarcasm that she got the idea. That was a Friday. And I was still hopeful for her to come and discus it and find together optimum ways out. To her evaluation, accompanied by examples of her performance, she said she is sorry about it. She wrote a leave request to start in 2 days. I signed it, giving her another chance. In vain.

She also sought the opinion of the management. The management was well informed in advance and after having reviewed her performance record, agreed on its content. She submitted a resignation letter quoting personal reasons. HR notified her that she her resignation letter was approved by the management and she is to start her check out procedure.165921033

These were three painful months for me, but I am satisfied that project-wise it remained on course, with only a slight delay, which I anticipated. I have invested a lot emotionally in this case. I have also given her numerous opportunities to redress the situation through constant feedback. Personally, I also know that I’ve given it a lot of thought, even too much perhaps in some of the sleepless nights. I’ve consulted people who knew her professionally, which made me more confident that this was not a phase or a biased decision. It is also important to do your paper work on personnel and file it in advance with anyone who needs to be involved.

A good take away lesson was to have mitigation measures in place. When she tabled the resignation latter, I started talking to assistants I knew and who would have been happy to work on that project. It resulted in a transitional overtime arrangement with a highly efficient project assistant, who even agreed to do it free of charge. I declined the offer as I believe that we all deserve to be paid well for our job, unless we do charity or voluntary work. The project assistant who worked with the former project manager also offered to help with whatever I need. So did numerous other colleagues in HR, procurement and finances. No one felt the difference from day one of her departure. And once a recruitment was completed by another project, I could take the second best candidate.  And the second best was indeed good. In fact, she was so good that when she applied for a project officer position, 12 months later, I proudly supported her.

My colleague was right: I learned a lot, about human nature, cooperation, colleagues’ support, give and take at the work place.

For a project manager, choosing the right time to say good buy is critical. And, as a mindful project manger, try to always create back ups. Learn about all processes your colleagues do to unveil and prevent bottlenecks and even act yourself as a back up if necessary for the project to stay on course.

Project team members appraisal: steps

I’ll go weird on this one. There is only one step for a meaningful appraisal. Preparation. With a capital letter.

Appraisal is not a surprise, pop-up event or pop-in occurrence, to pencil in a calendar.

It is a continuous process. We are judgemental creatures, to an extent or another. It can be a strength for an appraiser. Can be a weakness. To turn it into a strength, be transparent about it. For example, if you take notes through the year about team members performance, let them know in advance. Or give the feedback on spot.

More or less aware of the continuous nature of the appraisal, the date X arrived and by your corporate culture, you are required to sit down (hopefully).

So better come prepared. On both sides.

Write down the points you’d like to review. Send them to the appraise, in advance, to prepare. I like to use a simple two column table, which I send to team members 2 weeks in advance. See for instance:

Evaluation: take stock Objectives setting: look into the future
What were your most important responsibilities? the way you see them (re-read to refresh memory, but pls paraphrase) What are your most important responsibilities, to come, if you are aware? in your own words
Has there been any change or progress in your main responsibilities during the appraisal year? What new tasks/responsibilities would you like to be given?
Which work-related or other events have had an effect on these changes? contextualize Which objectives can you/would you like to put forward for the coming year?
Have these changes affected your performance? If yes, what recovery/remedies did you apply, if there was such a need Do you have the resources (material or other/your own and team’s) you need to achieve these objectives? What competences you’d like to bring more into work? What competences you’d like to upgrade?
Do you meet any particular difficulties in your work, which remained unvoiced? In any areas of your work. In your opinion, what changes to the resources currently available could make your work easier or improve your performance?

Which of the objectives set for you have you

fulfilled? (note specific facts in support of these results)

partly fulfilled? (try to assess the discrepancies and to explain why they occurred)

not fulfilled? (give the reasons for these situations, if possible)

Be aware of motives vs excuses.

Would you need additional trainings? do you foresee/anticipate any additional learning needs?
What skills and competences did you apply to achieve objectives? Do you think that you could increase your efficiency? How & is there anything I could do?
Which work-related skills have you been able to improve? Which skills would you have wanted to improve? What results indicators you would set for your work in 2017? Any intermediate milestones?
What are your strengths as far as competencies are concerned? Where do you feel you could do more?
Have you taken any work-related training courses? How do you assess their impact on your work/team work?
I would like also to discuss the way we work together:

•     What are 2-3 aspects of our joint work you enjoy?

•     What are 2-3 aspects of our joint work you’d like to change/improve?

Choose the place. Starbucks could be trendy, but it’s not a place for a frank and confidential talk. A quiet office/meeting room will be just fine. Send the meeting request.

Do a biases-self-check. It is not always possible to get rid of them. But at least being/becoming aware  is a good start. Biases come in many shapes and forms: recency bias (remember the most recent events); the right way/one way only is my way; halo effect, cultural biases. See how to outsmart your biases here, for example

Set the tone and a positive atmosphere. It is not a Sf. Valentine date. And days of public penitence are gone. It needs to be positive, free of unnecessary emotions. It’s no place for “I have the impression”.

Set rules of procedure at the beginning. “Agree to disagree does not mean your suggestion will be taken automatically” keeps expectations in check.

Let the appraisee talk. Practice active listening. No open-ended questions. Stay concrete. Apply assertiveness.

Check if achieved I’m OK – You’re OK (Dr. Thomas Harris I’m OK – You’re OK ). End with an invitation to change what you agreed on.


Project team members appraisal: why and how

In preparation to the annual performance evaluation, I was looking for inspiration for a meaningful exercise. I accept occasional ticking the box exercises in minor, impactless things, but not in the case of performance evaluation. Too much is at stake. For all concerned. The appraiser included. Assuming regular feedback is happening, the one-to-one performance discussion/interview is very important. It cements the relation by positive emphasis on where things are and their next frontier.2516792
I was looking for inspiration and discovered the HRB article “Giving a High Performer Productive Feedback” by Amy Gallo, December 3, 2009. It gives a structured approach to the performance evaluation and provides guidance on Do and Dont. Just back from a performance interview, I realised that this approach is transferable to all team members, whom one may not necessarily recognise as stellar.

“If you want people to change, give them positive feedback” is a well known adagio.

Appart from following the pretty standard structure of discussion around:

1. current performance

2. next performance frontier

3. aspirations, goals

I also include a few more personalised touches:

1. Show gratitude. Focus on how the performance was achieved. At what cost? (family-work balance).

2. What would you like to do next? What do you want to be known for in the project/programme/organisation? What matters to you most?

3. What can i do to support you on the path to excellence?

I would focus on “excellence”. We are all able to fly. It’s often the appreciation – the fuel – that keeps us grounded or makes us fly. How stellar is the team depends often on how the project manager  praises and appraises its members.

T.H.I.N.K helps shape the feedback:

T – true

H – helpful

I – inspiring

N – necessary

K – kind

For individual and team learning it is equally important to be clear about room for improvement. We tend to stay away from negative feedback and there is research on that (“The Feedback Fallacy”, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, HBR, March–April 2019 Issue). I also tend to agree with Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley “What Good Feedback Really Looks Like”, HBR of May 13, 2019. The key is to focus on Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) to “address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way”. 

Case in point:

An example of SBI from my experience: “Just before the conference was about to start, the interpreter refused to work. I had to persuade her to stay, otherwise I would have had to interpret. I had to moderate the discussion in the room (situation). You were always at conferences’ venues to make sure all is well prepared (behaviour). What went differently this time? What can we do to make sure it does not repeat? (impact)”. As the feedback focused on learning the cause and on future, it was well received. No other incidents of this kind occurred in the project.

Let’s Project some fun

Team members language skills:

I was watching from a distance a team member talking to a German consultant we recently hired. When he returned I said:

– I did not know you speak German.

– I don’t.

– But you maintained a conversation for half-an-hour. And this guy does not speak English. How did you do that?

– Whatever he said, I kept responding “warum nicht?!”

– We’ll see tomorrow if you “warum nicht” to a fee increase 🙂