Category: What to expect

Networking

As a preschooler, I was best friends with our teacher’s son, Andrei. It was particularly helpful at disciplining times. “If you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the potty class” was the harshest penalty on earth for us. At the slightest sign of the penalty approaching, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s discontent). “Ok, you two go back to class. The rest – off you go”. This relationship brought me many perks in the pre-school years. It also opened access to other teachers’ favours.

As we find out in adulthood, networking does not come that easy, at least not to all of us. “Why on earth?” “How? How do I start the conversation?”. “What if they will think I am too pushy?” etc are the usual introverts’ inner talks at networking events. I’ve been there. Done that.

It is self-explanatory that projects do not exist in a vacuum and networking is part of the project manager’s job. “How good are you at networking?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews.

Networks help in projects. Knowing the right person in the right place at the right time helps solve and/or prevent lots of issues. Networks also contribute to the change the project works for.

In time, I learned that the initial contact struggle was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network is the hardest part. It takes time and effort.

To make a network work it needs not to be self-serving. The perks of networking need to bring mutual advantages and lasting benefits to those involved and the professional community at large. And it needs to be clean of whatever allegations.

A story:

Mary was managing a multi-million project whose success depended on a vast network of Government officials. She knew some of them through previous professional contacts. The majority though were totally new both in their jobs and to the project.

She did her homework and found out whom from her network she could approach to help her gain access. Her first strategy of meetings over coffee and introductions at official receptions was successful. She moved to the next step and asked the most influential project partner to convene a meeting with all, to make it official through a charter signed by all. It was an important milestone for setting the common goals and demonstrating the benefits of the network and the project.

As the project progressed, some inevitable hurdles emerged and the network kept changing as the commitment of some of its members to common goals changed due to Government reshuffles. Mary kept true to the charter and continued to pro-actively engage the members of the network at levels which worked: one-to-one, smaller groups, entire network. In the end, keeping the network consistently functioning for the entire duration of the project paid dividends, as its members demonstrated a sufficient degree of maturity for a more advanced phase of the project.


“Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room!” – re-post

As announcements of unprecedented economic responses rolled on, public procurements worked in an emergency regime. Economic relief plans opened the door to opportunities. Opportunities put to test both the business integrity and the integrity of public institutions. International organisations – such as Council of Europe, OECD – started publishing warnings of corruption risks across industries.

I have not managed investments and/or big infrastructure projects yet, although many years ago I was in charge of overseeing a portfolio, which included a number of infrastructure projects. I remember the complexity of those projects and, in consequence, how high maintenance they were. There was no corruption involved, as reported later by auditors. Yet, my state of alert was constantly high. And understandably so. Seven digit invoices, delays, explanations and justifications, demands for additional budget were some of the red flags. Plus, rubber boots and dusty construction sites came in a package.

The article “Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room!” by Giorgio Locatelli, Giacomo Mariani, Tristano Sainati, Marco Greco equips project managers with a number of valuable insights, both at the planning and at the implementation phase. As the executive summary of the article states: “This paper leverages the institutional theory to introduce the concept of “corrupt project context” and, using the case study of Italian high-speed railways, shows “the impact of a corrupt context on megaprojects.”

In addition to that, the article analyses the salient facets of corruption and characteristics of projects which make them more or less prone to corruption. One can use them as red flags. Authors raise an important number of issues, which are to be paid attention to, in particular as the topic of corruption can still appear as highly controversial in some project management contexts, in particular in times of emergencies.

“Corruption in public projects and megaprojects: There is an elephant in the room!” by Giorgio Locatelli, Giacomo Mariani, Tristano Sainati, Marco Greco, published in the International Journal of Project Management, volume 35, Issue 3, April 2017, pages 252-268, available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0263786316301090

Unethical Behavior? The psychology behind

“Playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the CEO’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the boss to cheat a little, it’s easy for subordinates to rationalize similar behavior.” (Warren Buffet, Letter to Shareholders, 2018).

Paraphrasing the above in the project management context: playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the project manager’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the project manager to cheat a little, it’s easy for team members to rationalise similar behaviour.

Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort explains the psychology behind unethical behaviour in her article published in Harvard Business Review (12 April 2019). I very much recommend to read the article. It raises the awareness of own behaviour and explains others’ behaviour next time you find yourself in an environment prone to unethical démarches.

As Merete Wedell-Wedellsbort puts it “three psychological dynamics  lead to crossing ethical lines. First, there’s omnipotence: when someone feels so aggrandized and entitled that they believe the rules of decent behavior don’t apply to them. Second, we have cultural numbness: when others play along and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking of more immediate rewards such as staying on a good footing with the powerful.”

In project management, your “audience” is neither experts of any sorts nor politicians/commentators. Your audience are the tax-payers (in development management) or the shareholders. The numbers that flow up to you as a project manager should be the ones you send on to those who gave you the money to implement the project. They send auditors to attest to that. The above applies not only to money. It also applies to relationships with stakeholders; communication with the public; rewards for team members and many other aspects of project management.

Case in point:

Upon arrival on the team as a new project manager, Avril (not real name) learns that the donor will send an audit in two months. The last financial report raised a number of questions. She realised the report was made to match the numbers and did not reflect accurately the actual spending. Avril knew the report was done to please the previous project manager, who believed the rules of accountability do not apply to him (omnipotence). After discussing it with the financial assistant, it became clear that the later admired the project manager (cultural numbness) and played along (justified neglect).

Avril prepared all the supporting documents required by the auditors in advance. Upon the arrival of the auditors in the morning of the appointed day, she acknowledged the mistakes made in calculations, exchange rates and the like. There was nothing to hide and the numbers had to be corrected before the final financial report. The auditor tuned in Avril’s readiness to correct it with “you are glad we are here”.

As a result, the implementing organisation was spared of the need to repay a six figure amount and the reputation of the project was restored.

Ivan/Getty Images

Lion’s Cage: things we do in projects

It was breakfast time. I was wondering whether our trainer – Alex – will show up. My brain was analysing options, in case he will not. I would have understood. The day before was tough.
When Alex got into the breakfast room, he had a poker face so I was prepared for anything.
– It feels as if going into a lion’s cage, said Alex.
– We are the lions, I said, meekly.

He smiled back, took a sip of coffee and went to prepare the room for the day.

How we got there: A client wanted a two day training on a matter they said it was important for the future of the organisation and they wanted to do it only with us. They did not have to pay for it. We had a sponsor. We agreed, found the right trainers and organised the logistics. It was not a small thing, as the audience was of 100 people representing over 30,000 of the organisation’s members.

When day 1 unfolded, a strong sense of opposition to the concepts to be tackled became obvious. The matter was more sensitive to the members of the organisation than we anticipated from the preparatory work with their management. Their internal divisions became also obvious. Not an ideal environment for learning and advancing the interests of the organisation.

But this is the nature of projects – they are not needed in ideal environments. We had to put together our conflict resolution skills, networking skills, positive feedback and the ability to help people find common ground. It also required a ‘is there anything I can do?” question whispered to the chairperson of the organisation, who seemed to enjoy the fight her fellows were putting on with the trainers. She got my point and helped change the tone of the event.

Finally, we managed to put the training on the right track and by the end of Day 2 we could smile and be proud that people were engaging in group work, making presentations and interacting in a civilised way with each other and trainers. They took away a great deal of new and important perspectives for their organisation’s future. Those who stayed to the end and the management of the organisation were fully satisfied and send a Thank You letter afterwards.

We could have stopped after day 1. A note to file would have done the job. Payments would be partial, according to the work and services actually delivered… . Still there was something to it, for us to learn.

My take away:
– be prepared to recover projects at any time;
– trust your members of the team;
– act on prevention with the information you have at hand;
– build alliances and rely on then.

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?

What to Do When the Project Sponsor Says No

Here it is! The product of your sleepless nights – a shiny new project proposal. You love it. You cherish it. You think it’s “the one and only” and that others will share your enthusiasm and love of it. And then the project’s sponsor says “No”. It comes as a thunder in a sunny Summer day. Or, you start getting hints that it will not be approved and that other options might need to be considered. Here are some of the options I noticed project managers taking:

Option A. The project manager will push for it and bring in all the heavy artillery he/she has in arsenal. Sometimes, the risks and benefits are weighted.

Option B. The project manager drops it. He/she goes home or to a bar and drowns the bitterness of disappointment in a glass or two of something bitter. Or he /she puts the pic of the sponsor on the wall and throws darts at it. Or chooses other harmless ways of dealing with the feelings.

Option C. The project manager repositions and starts seeing what the sponsor sees. He/she then realigns the proposal and reconsiders the timing. Usually, a resubmission follows.

Option D. The project manager goes to another sponsor. And it is usually cap in hand, if he/she firmly believes in the project idea. It is mynkind of option: If i am on a dead end road it does not mean someone else does not have a helicopter to pick up the load.

Each option warrants careful consideration in terms of costs of taking the No as an answer from financial to reputational aspects in each particular case.

Accepting a No can be hard. Moving beyond a No can be harder. Your choice and living with the consequences of it depends on your values and the importance you, as a project manager, attach to your ideas and the professional relation you have with the project beneficiary. At the end of the day, it is them who pay for the lost opportunity or benefit from you not taking No as an answer.

This is what my kid did when i said No to a Lego number one hundred something. I am inspired.

Do you take No as an answer?

***

Inspired by “What to Do When Your Boss Says No” by Scott Sonenshein, February 06, 2017, Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/02/what-to-do-when-your-boss-says-no?utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

What to expect: at your first team meeting

A first meeting can be a trip into unchartered waters. Thankfully, a lot of research helps with tips. Here are some of them and one of my first meetings, as a exemplification.

So, you put your best outfit and your smile on and you enter the meeting room. Tadam! No applauses? Indeed a suit and a smile help for a good first impression. And there is more. It is well-known that it takes seven seconds to make a first impression.  In seven seconds your suit, smile, handshake, gestures, facial expression, eye contact, posture and tone of the voice will all be screened and assessed. So better get ready.

Showcasting in the privacy of your home before the meeting helps prepare. Use a large mirror. Or call in a pair of friendly eyes and ears. Rehearse your introduction, work on its content. But equally, if not more, it is important to be aware of our non-verbal communication.  UCLA research has shown that only 7% of communication is based on the actual words we say. As for the rest, 38% comes from tone of voice and the remaining 55% comes from body language. Our gestures, facial expression, eye contact, posture and tone of voice speak louder than words and suits. The trick with the body language is that you cannot fake it. The good news is that awareness about how you use your body to speak can be developed. In time, with practice and patience.  stock-photo-colleagues-at-an-office-meeting-275789651

Of the many first team meetings i had as a project manager, here is a story, which shows how vulnerabilities and strengths may show at a first meeting with the team.

The team was there for 2,5 years already and they knew each other well enough. The portfolio manager wanted to introduce me to the project team even before i signed the contract. She was eager to give them the assurance that after three project managers in five months, things will take a stable course. It gives a clue about the environment I was about to start in.

So there I was, in my suit, with a smile and a soft lady-like handshake. My soft lady like handshake assured the men in the team that there is no “threat”. It created though a sense of competition among the female members. I was to learn about it in the coming weeks.

To present my credentials, the portfolio manager gave them the details of my past experience. Complementary, i highlighted experiences team members and I had in common. My years in consultancy, for instance. My shoulders, while speaking about it, was read as a sign of confidence in my ability to steer the pluri-disciplinary project by some and as a predictor of a potentially more demanding reporting line by others. The latter made me work harder on my collaborative and persuasive skills.

A round table sitting allowed for a good eye contact. I could move my eyes around to make sure each and everyone feels included. With the exception of a couple of looking-down pairs of eyes. Which brings me to the other side of the first meeting: it is also an opportunity for you to watch and learn. The couple of looking-down eyes, for example, was a post-it for me for where more attention will need to be devoted.

Depending on the stage if the project, at the first meeting with the project team, you may need to get down to the planning business or agree on one-to-one follow-up meetings to learn more and then plan.

As a cliche as it may sound, prepare and plan your first meeting for good first impressions to the extent you can. The number and quality of follow-up meetings may depend on it.

What to expect: when you have to manage a team of seniours

– I want to dye your hair!, my hairdresser is relentless.

– No. Not yet.

– Why?

– I am managing a project where 20% could be my parents, 70% – my uncles and aunts and 10% – my older brothers.

– and?, she is still relentless.

– I conquer them with my grey hair! 🙂

She gave up.

Couple of months later, an external monitor, hired by the project’s sponsor, knocked at the door.

Guess what was his first question from the long list of efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability, cross-cutting issues? “You are much younger than the project’s team members. How do you make them listen? ”

– It’s not about age, it’s about experience and mutual respect, my grey hair answered.

These were the ingredients I discovered on my journey with a seniors team:

Ingredient one: listen.

I was the one on the listening end. Most of the time. Better even if you can actively listen.

Ingredient two: acknowledgment.

Listening led to a simple acknowledgement: I am younger. Their experience in all their fields of expertise exceeds mine by numbers and value.

Ingredient three: borders.

We agreed on borderlines: I know a thing-or-two about project management; they know one hundred-or-two about the fields they are experts in.

Ingredient four: assertiveness.

Listening, acknowledging and border lines led to assertiveness. “You are assertive. I have to give you that” coming from a senior officer who worked around the world was a feedback I trusted. Assertiveness offers a great anchor. Especially when borders are crossed and a patronising tone wants to make an entrance (from both sides). It’s tough, but manageable. The benefits are higher and long-lasting when you stay calm and positive.

Ingredient five: blame it on my youth

When nothing seemed to work, I would shrug my shoulders. “What do I know?!” And it would be them convincing me of the opposite 😉