Thought of the week: Time to get bored

I know. End-of-year deadlines of all sorts. Rush. Frustration to getting out-of-office responses. Overheated payments processing…. And once all is done (whatever is possible) – it is time to do nothing and get bored.

Boredom is beautiful. It gives a chance to new seeds to be planted and new ideas to grow. Here is to growth and creativity!


Networking in projects

“How good are you at establishing relations with the project sponsor and partners?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews for project manager’s position. And rightly so.

In time, I learned that the “establishing” was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network takes time and effort.

As a preschooler, my best class buddy was the teacher’s son, Andrei. I do not remember how we became best friends, but I remember our relationship and the benefits of this connection. It was particularly helpful at discipline time. “if you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the potty class” was the harshest teacher’s penalty on earth for us. Us, 5 year old! to spend time with the pre-nursery kids?! Harsh, indeed. In times of such menace, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s reprimand). “Ok, you two, go back to the class room. The rest – to the potty class”. You can say that I knew her bias towards her son and used it. True, that helps too.

Networking is beautiful. It can also be dirty. It can save the project. It can also kill it.

There are internal networks and there are external networks.

There are “must networks” and optional networks.

There are visible networks and invisible, yet present networks. Some call them formal and informal.

It is up to the project team to choose what works best in each case.

Be smart about your choices. Be selective in prioritizing networks. The consequences will be on the project and rarely on the network.

You have to be comfortable with networking. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that some of us feel morally ‘dirty’ when we network, because we act in ways that we can’t justify, schmoozing people for our own gain. I found a sort of golden middle – doing it for the sake and benefit of the project changes the feeling and perspective.

Case #1.

– May I introduce you Oxana, the project manager. She was kissed by the minister the other day, my boss introduced me to the new member of the team, a former minister himself.

The story showed how much my boss appreciated networking abilities to the benefit of the project. The greeting by kissing was symbolic of it. My boss had many reasons to highlight the incident. It was a flagship multi million project with many high level beneficiaries. It was not all roses and not since the beginning. The initial mistake was to let the project live in a bubble. Or rather in many bubbles, as each team member was networking it his/her own way. The lead partner was forgotten and no one took care of it. Opening the bubbles was painful yet necessary. Investing in networking with the lead partner was the way to show the good things done by the project as a whole.

And it had to be done by the project manager, for the sake of uniform approaches and leveling the accountability to the beneficiaries. It had also to be done gradually, so that the mutually beneficial sense in all concerned was built step by step.

The prior networking work done by individual members of the team at their level and in their respective fields was paramount. It brought the positive pressure from its many outside partners, who were able to testify in front of its main beneficiaries to the successful delivery of products and services.

Case # 2

Informal networks can help, but be aware of their limitations.

A project had a number of project partners with equal voting rights in the project’s board. One of partners had an issue with a team member, which escalated into an open conflict. The team member used personal informal connections to neutralise the unhappy committee member. It worked, in the short-term. Yet, in medium term, it made the partner feel cornered and only provided an excuse for an open attack, at a time of project vulnerability. The cost of informal networks proved too high and the solution was to gain the respective partner over with patience, persuasion and persistence.

Conflict. Bring it on?

– Conflict is good, my junior colleague said to me on our way to an important meeting. He just read an article in HBR.

I wondered if he meant conflict in the team or with the client. It could have been on either fronts. Or even on both.

I did not pursue that conversation back then. I knew he was going through a tough period in his personal life and was looking for an excuse to vent his spleen. “Not on my watch”, I thought back then. Bringing personal conflict into professional life is a no win-win. Same is valid the other way around.

Let’s look at origin of the word: “conflict” com “with, together” (see con-) + fligere “to strike” (see afflict). Think about it.

Conflict happens quite often in projects. Some time it is avoidable. Sometimes, it is unavoidable. When it happens, there are things to do or abstain from. It depends on a series of factors, among which I would consider the following:

1. The origin of conflict

Different priorities, incompatible communication styles, unclear roles or a lack of trust are often at the root of conflict between team members. Unmet expectations, exceeded budget, unmet objectives or deadlines can generate conflicts with the project sponsor or contractors.

2. The parties to conflict

Conflicts happen between team members, with the project’s sponsor or contractors.

3. The objective of the conflict or what are the parties after.

Some just love to live in a perpetual conflictual state with no positive objective in mind. Some want to bring to the surface things, which are not seen as positive or beneficial for the project or a party concerned.

Depending on the answers to the above, a conflict management strategy has to be put in place. It has to be managed, otherwise it will manage the project right into failure or difficulties.

There is plenty of literature on approaches to manage conflict. Here are a number of my observations as a project manager over a number of years in a number of projects:

1. Start with checking your assumptions about the origin of the conflict and the purpose of parties concerned. Do not be mislead and do not mislead.

2. Look for common ground. For example, the project sponsor wants more visibility and threatens to cut funds. At the same time, the project team is reluctant to go “public” and feels unappreciated. A common ground could be to present the visibility requirement of the sponsor as an opportunity to do justice to the project team’s work.

3. Keep your head and stay neutral, the same way Switzerland preserves hers. Avoid at all costs taking sides, unless there is blatant injustice to any of the parties concerned. For example, a team assistant blaming the driver for a failure of the translation equipment and putting at risk the entire event. A good conflict management strategy in this case is to talk to all concerned and find out what happened exactly and ask both of them to read again their respective job descriptions. Designing a standard operating event management procedure and/or an event preparation check list helps to prevent potential future conflicts.

Sharing is caring. About whom? About what?

– Oh, you have a new décor!

– Yes, Japanese. It is thanks to you!

– Me?

– You told me about Tanaka and I introduced it in my wellness center. My clients love it and my services are in high demand.

My heart rejoices. The dialogue was with my dear reflexologist – Joelle.

Sharing is caring is a buzz word. I hear it often around me.  How come? We live in the era when sharing is a click away, effortlessly. So, why is there more demand for sharing?

Perhaps it is this effortless share that makes it meaningless. Perhaps those with whom we share it – the public, friends, acquaintances – do not need it or do not see the value of it.

Sharing is caring, when we share a piece of bread and a hot meal with someone who is hungry. And sharing is something more. It is sharing with those who have a first for learning and knowledge.

Can we go back to public lectures? The times of Agora meetings are behind us and long forgotten, with a few exceptions, here and there in some Universities. And even if we are there, at the public lecture, our eyes are on the phone, finger scrolling down.

I came across the name of Karl Friston, the author of the free energy principle, the organising principle of all life and all intelligence. He avoids one-to-one human interaction and has no mobile phone. He is the most prolific author in any discipline – 85 publications in 2017 alone, i.e. a publication every four days.   He opposed the patenting of the statistical parametric mapping and this is how PET scans became widespread (source: You get the point.

Next time I will hear the call ‘sharing is caring’, I will be sure to ask myself: when was it last time I stood in front of an audience of people eager to learn and shared my learning, so that it becomes everybody’s learning? Or produced something and gave it for free? Don’t hesitate to join!

Integrity in projects: Receiving gifts

integrity image

“Oxana, the boxes of chocolate and tea are more for you”, read the email I received from the big boss of the organisation I worked for. It was after a meeting between top management and the project team. One of the consultants on the team offered to the chair of the meeting the famous chocolate.

“Thank you very much. I’ll pick them up and open the boxes for everyone to enjoy in the coffee/kitchen room” was my immediate response. I knew the ethics rules this Organisation had. And I was committed to apply them.

It was also an example for other team members who were puzzled at the meeting and watchful of management reaction.

A box of chocolate is a small thing, right? the temptation jumps in. Better check your client’s and your organization’s policies on Receiving gifts. If you are a free-lancer, check your professional quarters’ guidelines. PMI for example,

Some guidelines are more gifts-tolerant and set a maximum value for gifts which can be accepted. They range from USD 30 or equivalent (UNDP) to 100 Euro of equivalent (Council of Europe). More important than the value are the intention and or perception of influence that gifts may carry. Some Organisations are outright intolerant to gifts, regardless of the value and source, in particular for staff involved in procurement. As project managers, we are involved in procurement.

I’ve seen guidelines which contain a permission to accept gifts, which otherwise would be insulting to the offerer, for cultural or local customs reasons. In such a case, the gift shall be immediately disclosed and transferred for a decision to management.

Once in Ukraine, at a dinner paid by the project at the end of the project, I was offered two traditional cakes by the client. I declined politely. “We know it is below the value of gifts you can accept. We checked.”, they insisted. “I will pass it to my colleagues in the local office, to enjoy, as a token of your appreciation”, was my response. And so I did the next morning.

If I cannot refuse the gift, I make sure that offerer understands that I act in accordance with the gifts receiving policies I abide by and that I accept it on behalf of the team. And I share it with the team: be it a box of chocolate, traditional sweets, a bottle of spirits, an invitation to a cultural event, a tour, etc. I know it is given to me only because I am on this project and I am already paid for doing my job.

Some Guidelines prohibit gifts from certain sources: Government, for example, or vendors, as these carry the risk of being seen as a “down payment” for a future favour on behalf of the organisation/company you work for. Money gifts are a No in literally all professional conduct guidelines I saw. No explanation as to why is necessary.

“What about gifts post-project?” you may ask. I can only congratulate you for having succeeded to transform a business relation into a friendship. Nevertheless, I would be watchful over how much time elapsed after the project, if you are not in a new project design phase and if no strings are attached from either side.

Keep it professional and maintain your integrity watchful!

From the series “Integrity in project management”. To be continued.