Networking in projects
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 babies’ 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 to both of us many perks in those pre-school years.
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. 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.
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.
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 any allegations of inappropriate actions.
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 to the rest. 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.
The story of a book which saw the light in lockdown
On a bright April day, as I was casually browsing Linkedin for updates, I noticed a post by Peter Taylor:
A month into full lockdown, my brain jump at it with delight. “A legacy-book to be published in 21 days? Phew! Why so long?!” I thought to myself. So, I responded to the challenge and so did 55 other project managers across industries from around the world.
“The Projectless Manager: Inspirational Thoughts from a World of Project Managers” is now on Amazon, both in paperback and for Kindle.
It is dedicated to “A global community of health carers and key workers. Its proceeds go to NHS. The book is, as Peter puts it, “unique ‘in the moment’ and ‘of the moment’ book.”
It was such a by-the-book project by itself: on time, within budget and objective – achieved, all this with members of a tribe who basically only know each other by Linkedin profiles.
I have to mention kids here. Those who know me, know that I am a full-time kids’ advocate. The cover is a result of a challenge for 9 year olds. So, it is also an inter-generational act of contribution and sharing. Kudos to kids!
Training: here we come again
We learned from Harvard Business Review, that in 2018 U.S. companies spent roughly USD 90 Billion on learning and development. Some entire countries only aspire to reach that amount of GDP. According to the same source, the average American employee received training at a cost of around USD 1,000 per person. For a company of 50,000 employees, that’s an annual USD 50 million per year.
In development projects, capacity building and training are often an intrinsic part of the intervention. Question about the efficiency and effectiveness of the investment in training are not new. Yet, the answers continue to come with delay or in part only. Tax- payers want to know what changes are brought by development money. What changed for victims of violence after police officers or social workers were trained in country X?
Back to the private sector, a survey in the U.S. among 1,500 executives found that one in five organisations do nothing to measure the impact of trainings. Of those that do, only 13% calculate quantifiable results. I have yet to see similar data on development projects.
Measuring the impact of trainings is often seen as an extra activity, which is not part of the scope of the project. There are reasons for that. There are also good arguments for revisiting that view. Measuring the impact of the training will show where, when and what kind of training is needed in the context the project works in. This will maximise the effect and support the sustainability of the capacity building.
To measure the impact of trainings in projects, specific activities can be introduced at a number of levels at certain intervals. The Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation is a useful tool. According to this model, the training can be evaluated at four levels:
- reaction (post-training evaluation by participants);
- learning (knowledge and skills acquired at the training);
- behavior and job performance changes after the training;
- impact on the performance of the entity/organization.
For 1 and 2 pre and post-training questionnaires are appropriate. For 3 and 4, co-operation with the client’s organisation will be necessary. Some organisations have performance management systems, where recommendations for training and post-training follow-up on skills’ upgrade are included.
For further inspiration:
Data based on “You learn best when you learn less” by Laszlo Bock, 17 June 2019, Harvard Business Review.
“An investigation into the relationship between training evaluation and the transfer of training” by Alan M. Saks and Lisa A. Burke, in International Journal of Training and Development 16:2
Things we do in projects: managing conflict between team members
It was my first week in a new project manager’s job. I got a phone call from Avery – a consultant on the team – who sounded distressed and wanted to urgently meet. I agreed immediately and we met that afternoon.
Almost sobbing, she told me that her male colleague undermines her position and makes her efforts futile. She went on and on. The word “harassment” was in the air. From her narrative, it seems that it was happening for months, if not years. I asked her if she talked about her experience with the previous three project managers this project had. “No”, she admitted, and said she was “not able to take it anymore”…
I offered her a number of options, including to involve human resources, as she mentioned harassment. She agreed with the option of both of them meeting in my presence. I called our other colleague and we met couple of days later over a cup of coffee, on a neutral territory.
– Avery has something to tell you, Nick.
Avery was hesitating but it was too late to retrieve from the face-to-face. With some encouragement, she voiced her concerns. I could see Nick was in shock.
After the meeting he came by my office.
– I am shocked, he said.
– Yes, I saw.
– She spent her Sundays in my house, having wine with me and my wife, over the last two years. We work on a daily-basis… Now to hear all that and the bitterness in her voice…
I listened to his account of events. We agreed that he will think about what he can do on the points she raised. He was to remove all issues she could have potentially thought of as red flags in her communication with their common client.
As a project manager, I reassigned the assistant they shared, so there would be no suspicion of unwanted information passing from one office to another. Nick also arranged for the client to give her an honorary award. Needless to say, they did not have wine together after that. As things evolved in next months, we could see she liked her victim’s role and was soon after another colleague.
Two years later, Nick died of cancer. I always wondered if that story did not trigger it.
This story taught me many things. It taught me empathy and its dark side. It also reminded me to:
- Observe the interaction between team members and stay informed.
- Listen to both sides.
- Do what you can to help overcome the conflict by giving both sides an equal opportunity to voice their concerns.
- Do not allow for self-victimisation on the team. It serve no purpose.
- Take things seriously and involve Human Resources or mediators when there are indications of inappropriate behaviour and disrespect.
- Stay alert to the need to revisit team members’ communication needs and channels and eventually redistribute roles within the team.
- Last but not least, act with integrity.
* names are changed.
How to maintain collaboration between project team members who do not like each other
A very good colleague of mine – Peter – once told me “At work, there is professionalism, respect and chemistry. It is ideal when you have all three. You can still work with the first two only though”.
Indeed, chemistry is valuable and rare. Not all project teams have it. Sometimes it is possible to create it. Sometimes it is not. We all encountered “cats and dogs” teams or “implosive teams”. Regardless, the project has to be delivered and the client – satisfied.
As a project manager, you might find yourself in-between. The tension might be silent or loud. Team members might want you to deal with it or just, quite the opposite, to not get mixed up.
Over years, I learned that there are a number of things a project manager can do:
- Observe to be able to prevent and to react, as appropriate.
- Learn about what’s behind the tension by listening. Truly listening to both sides.
- Clarify what’s in your power to do. Can you:
- redistribute roles based on team members’ strengths?
- offer safe space for people to get it off their chest?
- give other channels of communication between the “belligerents”? for example, communication through Slack, if they cannot talk to each other, or encourage more face-to-face communication, when misunderstandings arise from written communication.
- replace irreconcilable members of the team on areas which are essential for the project’s success?
4. If the organisation has training opportunities, offer to the members of the team to go to communication or conflict management trainings.
5. Remind everyone of the common objectives the entire team works for. Focus on what the team members have in common, not their dividing lines.
6. Organise informal team gatherings, over a beer or a bowling night or even a battle of any sorts (rap, dance, storytelling). It will offer team members an opportunity to know each other from other perspectives.
7. Above all, lead by example. Team members will often mirror the project manager’s preferences or dislikes. Keep your integrity in check.
Lion’s cage: the 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. We expected an audience 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 were fully satisfied. Their management sent us 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.
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 top three steps I applied and observed as a project manager over years:
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 does it. 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.
I was having a conversation the other day with a colleague about motivation. I am a believer in self-motivation. She strongly believes in external motivation and the managers’ ability to motivate staff.
A recent research shows “Psychologists have been considering the question of our “locus of control” since the 1950s. Those with an external locus of control have a sense of life happening to them; they believe their lives are primarily influenced by forces outside their control.
Those with an internal locus of control, by contrast, feel in charge of their own destiny and attribute success or failure to their own efforts. An internal locus of control yields vastly superior results. “
At the end if the day, it is about what works best in each team, the degree of emotional intelligence of each manager/leader and the individual’s choice. Self-motivation is a choice and it is a learned skill.
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