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 consultants. 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, borderlines led to assertiveness. “You are assertive. I have to give you that” coming from a senior customs officer working 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 😉



Content and Form in Projects

– Do you serve coffee only in the paper cups? I ask the barista in an airport, directing his eyes to the white porcelain cups i noticed in the corner cupboard.

– Yes, in paper cups, he replies. But we can do that. Only for you, his hand reaching for the porcelain cup.

You can easily guess how much i enjoyed my cappuccino. And how much he enjoyed his well-deserved tip.

It is a job made easy when clients know what they want and the way they want it. See for example this cute lemur:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CA0xQ7qOEmY. The ideal client, right?

In the project’s world, it is not always the cute lemur we sit across the table. I was once working with a client who called me back after a meeting on technical requirements for the IT procurement with the innocent “i asked Mr Google, but he gave me no hints on what to include in the procurement notice”. 

Some clients know what they want – a new building, let’s say. But do not know or have not thought about what this building should do for them and how its functionality should match the organisation’s needs. It is not often that I, as a project manager, know the answers straight away. In such cases, I press my “expert SOS ” button. And i get the client talking to the expert. I may spoil though their idyllic talk with the “keep it within the budget” reminder. And, as a project manager, I need to remember that it is not easy for the expert either to match the expectations of the client and of the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg

If the “expert” button is beyond reach, consultations, with the variety of their forms, and Systems Thinking come to rescue. If you wonder what is “Systems Thinking”, this is the source I first learned about it http://www.open.ac.uk/choose/ou/systemsthinking.

Regardless of the approach chosen to identify what the client wants, the key is to make sure the ownership is there. We do want the client to enjoy his building and what it does for them. The same way I enjoyed my cappuccino, at least.

A good laugh together keeps the objective closer: ice-breaker

Joy and productivity link. A good laugh makes people more productive at work. See for example the research by Cheng and Wang, ‘Examining the Energising Effects of Humour’, Journal of Business and Psychology, 2015, https://www.psychologies.co.uk/how-use-comedy-improve-your-productivity.

Projects are fertile soil for jokes and a good laugh together acts as a team GPS, Keeping all on course and shortening the journey, without cutting corners though.

I was in a training room. The trainer, Frank, was a consultant hired by the project. I sat at the back of the room, quiet as a mouse. Duty-wise, i needed to check on clients satisfaction by observing. I also love the topic – building leadership skills. The trainer knew i was coming and that he may as well ignore my presence. He chose to announce it. “Our project manager is here”. It was hard not to. I was the only women in the room.

For an ice-breaker, Frank assigned me to a group of participants and gave me a task. “I hope I will still have a job tomorrow”, said Frank to everyone’s’ laugh in the room.

“Happy to be an ice-breaker, Frank”.

A project manager learning from a Queen of the desert

Behind are the times when I thought that managing a project is a purely technical job. Problem tree, Objectives setting, logframe, work plan, work breakdown structures, reports, scorecards, Gantt chart, technical requirements etc sound indeed technical and schools make you believe that. No blame assigned. It is just easier for them to teach you. Your growth however is fully up to you.

When I read fiction or watch movies i catch my brain in Roden’s “Thinker” pose. The little voice asking “what can i use from this character in my projects world”. The inspiration is borderless. All you need are wide-open eyes and tuned in ears. I learn a great deal of tips and approaches from most unexpected sources.3564_fee51463caa859c

I’ll start with one example. The “Queen of the Desert” movie by the famous director Werner Herzog, staring Nicole Kidman, is about Gertrude Bell, British writer and archeologist, passionate about studying the East. https://youtu.be/Stacvv4VK1A

I drew parallels to my work. comparison with Nicole Kidman would not be in my favour anyway. So, back to her character, Gertrude. She goes into the unknown places, makes deeply rooted traditions her allies in changing without challenging, creates cooperation and collaboration without confrontation. Projects also take me into the unknown, i am in quest of legal and institutional traditions on which to build changes for development, i create space for cooperation with others doing a similar development work.

The way this movie character talks, positions herself with the almighty gives me insights into how to distinctively approach female and male decision makers according to the culture they operate in.

The way she persuades her own breed, with knowledge and self-earned authority, is insightful for relationship building within the organisation i work in.

Romans and projects

Projects are about getting things done. You write or are given a project work plan. A wonderful piece of paper or a document on a shiny looking screen. And then the question “what on Earth I do now and where do I start?” spoils the scenery. It was my first reaction back in time. I’ve noticed the look on the face of new project managers when they start the journey.
divide-et-imperaLuckily, it is not a new challenge and history helps. Romans knew a thing or two about getting what they wanted. Remember “Divide Et Impera”? So, go ahead and break the wonderful work plan into pieces. Cut it with a scissor, if necessary. 

Look at your big headings. Think small. Write it down. Think even smaller.  Write it down. Repeat until your eye for detail is happy. It is called “Work Breakdown Structure” (or known as WBS), one of my favourite project management tools. It satisfies my need for details in projects. It is a cure to the overwelming feeling in complex projects. It deserves a better name though. 

Tips for and steps for creating a work breakdown structure are available on internet and in project management books. Some are included here:

a. Create a list of major activities or deliverables.

b. Arrange them in order.

c. Break down each of the major activities to several smaller tasks.

d. Continue the decomposition till you find set of non-redundant deliverables and the smallest level tasks can be assigned to an individual.

It can be in any format you want: word, excel, post it-s on a wall. You can do it by yourself or with the project team. I like to add timelines and a budget column and use colour.

So go ahead, divide and rule!


Smile! You are SMART

Projects objectives. They are project manager’s best friend and curse. A tough love.

The conventional wisdom wants project objectives to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timebound). You can find many useful references on how to make them SMART in all project management books and methodologies.

We arrive at the project objective through  needs assessments and inclusive consultations, I hope. We write the project objective in the project doc. And we forget about it. Until reporting time knocks at the door or rather sends a reminder these days.

I echoe the need to have SMART objectives. I also like them to smile. If possible. Why? It is perhaps easier to stay loyal to a SMART and SMILE-ing objective.

S – sunny, as in The Carter Family – “Keep On The Sunny Side”, to bring a positive change

M – motivating, as in “One minute Manager”

I – inclusive, as in inclusive development

L -loyal, as in faithful to inclusive development

E – environmentally friendly, as in “do no harm”.