Project Management in Practice

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Tag Archives: Leadership

Is productivity gains the answer to improved business outcome?

Is productivity gains the answer to improved business outcomeI recently ran into an old school friend. At the time we were nearing the end of high school he was the coolest dude with a job at a fast food place. He had disposable income and an old second hand car. What else do you need in life? Those of us that were planning further studies or apprenticeships got plenty of advice from him on the futility of our endeavours. When someone mentioned better prospects and better pay, he simply said if he ever needed more money he can simply work a few extra hours.

All these years later I was surprised to see him holding training materials. I was intrigued with this change of attitude. At the time some of us were thinking of investing in our future and as a result consciously taking on a few more  years of hardship, he had no appreciation that his circumstances could change. He shared with me his predicament in working harder and harder to support his family. This larger than life character was backed into a corner. It is great to see him sorting his life out.

What has this got to do with business outcomes you may ask? It occurred to me how many organisations take a similar approach to making money. Everyone is in a mad rush to squeeze yet another billable hour out of staff, minimise non-utilised time. The only certainty is that the environments we operate in will change. As my friend found out eventually, there is only so much difference you can make using this approach.

True sustainable change comes when you have the commitment to review your methods, acknowledge the failings and change accordingly.

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Can you get the right reaction with the occasional verbal spray?

I was reading an article in the Harvard Business Review regarding the appropriateness of yelling at employees. It was quite an interesting article in which Michael Schrage gives examples as Steve JobsBill GatesSir Alex FergusonVince LombardiArturo Toscanini in various professions as those not averse to a bit of verbal spray. He makes an interesting point that while yelling does not make one a better manager, at the same time it does not necessarily indicate managerial weakness or failure of leadership.


Scharge seems to have taken quite a hammering if you read some of the comments on the article. However, I am sure he was playing the devils advocate and wrote the piece precisely to get this reaction. Indeed in some cases managers or leaders get away with the occasional hair dryer treatment. Let us have a think about what it is that their employees are letting them get away with and why. I will use some of the gentlemen mentioned in this very article.

The likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates built or ran organisations that generated a lot of wealth within its employee ranks. These are also organisations that employ some leading minds and have made a lot of employees rich through stock options. People work in these organisations for various reasons. Some are after the intellectual fulfillment, others for monetary reward, some purely to enhance their resume. Same is true for the likes of Ferguson and Lombardi. Players play for their teams for a mixture of lure of winning trophies, play with other great players, the salary or adulation from the fans.

For every Gates and Jobs there are multiple Kevin Rudd, Mark Pincus. For every Ferguson and Lombardi there are many more Buck Shelfords. The Shelford example is quite striking. He was known as the hardest rugby player. He once played on against France despite an act of foul play resulting in his scrotum being split. Bring back Buck signs are still visible today from fans cherishing his demeanour. Yet, when he took to coaching, he relied on the same “hard man” persona and foul mouth. His teams were unmitigated disasters.

What does that tell us. It is not these leaders’ yelling at their charges that got the results. Instead it was their other attributes of vision, planning, development of individual capabilities and sense of pride in work that were the key contributors for their success. In my view their sometimes tempestuous behaviour actually got in the way to diminish their other qualities. There would be a level of tolerance for everyone. Exceeding those would lead to people abandoning even the most decorated leaders.

Most people are not the special ones mentioned here. If leaders are to take cues from these well known figures, they should instead concentrate on their other qualities. I have found even small things like acknowledging good efforts from individuals and thanking them for those goes a long way than anything else. I struggle to think if yelling would ever give me the same reaction. Everyone is different in how they react to volleys of verbal spray. You have to make sure you get the right reactions from people.

Yelling is a sign of control lost. More credibility you have built over time will dictate how soon your people abandon you as a result. Even if you find it works from time to time, don’t get too fond of it.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

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How do I manage during uncertainty?

If you are in New Zealand, you have probably had enough of the earthquakes. Difficulties Christchurch faced is known worldwide. In recent time my home city of Wellington has also suffered from a magnitude 6.5 earthquake followed by several aftershocks of over 5. Fortunately Wellington appears to have escaped reasonably lightly due to its rock base and higher standard of building code, due to its location on a known fault line.

How do I manage during uncertainty

I did a lot of consulting at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) during its trying times. I saw a lot of their challenges first hand. What I had not experienced is the frazzled nerves. I always had the option of leaving, if the going got too tough. I have no such luxury in Wellington. Our office building has developed cracks in the stairwell, enough for management to be concerned about evacuating safely in the event of another emergency. We have decided to evacuate voluntarily until an independent engineering assessment is completed.

While that happens, we are in indefinite exile from the office. After the first earthquake some of the staff were locked out without access to their laptops. For an IT consultancy missing your laptop is like missing a limb. There is only so much you can do without it. We were back in the office for only a day before the continued aftershocks resulted in the evacuation. At least this time we had the opportunity for an orderly evacuation and took with us our laptops, notes, password stores, two factor authentication devices … basically things the team needs to do its work. Thankfully our document, work and incident management systems are all internet based.

The first lesson I have learned through this experience is about logistics. We have traditionally asked staff to turn off their laptops when leaving the office to save electricity. I have since asked my team to leave it plugged in and hibernation setting turned off or to take the laptop home. This to ensure in an unplanned office closure, we can be in a position to either provide them remote access to their laptop or they have it at their disposal.

We have dongles and other forms of access keys to connect to our customer environments to provide support. We are getting a second set of these from our customers and storing them at one of our other offices in a different city. When some of the team did not have access to their laptops, we switched our service model temporarily to provide advice and on-site consultancy. Many of our staff take their laptops home, so this was somewhat manageable. This approach does not always work. What is convenient to us is not always convenient for our customers, and you have to accept that.

The second and most important lesson I have learned is the value of co-location. I have stayed in touch with most of my team on a regular basis to provide direction, progress information and in general ensure well being of the team. What takes minimal time when you are together in the office takes significantly longer over the phone. Staff do appreciate being kept in touch. There is nothing like feeling left to fend for yourself to kill productivity. Lack of access to the regular work items will do enough of that.

I organised some localised meet ups to retain some level of camaraderie. Like other large cities, not everyone can make those at the same time with disruptions to public transport, lack of parking and access to central business district. Now that some of those challenges are abated, we are organising a room where staff can have meetings and drop in from time to time. What is lost in working on your own for prolonged periods is the ability to learn from each other.

While we had been working on a disaster resilience initiative, last fortnight has proved we are nowhere near there. It has been a challenging experience running a team size of ours remotely for extended periods. I have intentionally kept this post off the topic of financial impact and insurance, as my intention is to ponder the human elements in such situations. If you have experienced similar challenges and have found steps that work well, or does not work so well, I will be glad to hear.

As with what I saw in Christchurch, I am pleasantly surprised at the resilience of the team. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt to challenging situations.

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All about attitude

Organisational growth is always a scary proposition. People are put out of their comfort zone and reactions vary from person to person. One common approach I see in these situations is to go for ready-made talent from elsewhere than take the risk to develop from within.

One major hesitation to invest in people comes from the fear of losing those people once they have been trained up and the thought that the competition will snap up what it has invested in. I read an interesting post shared by Sarah Ouakim, where she outlines the response from a CEO to his CFO, who had exactly this fear. What happens if the organisation does not invest in its people and they end up staying? How does that help the organisation grow? I applaud that CEO for clarity of thought.

Afraid to invest in people because they may leave? What happens if you don’t and they stay?

In order to successfully grow from within, the organisation also has to be looking for leaders from within. What the organisation must look out for is what Scott Edinger in his Harvard Business Review blog calls reverse leadership – where people with specific expertise important to the organisation step up even though they may not be in an appointed leadership position. The organisation must acknowledge that it is not a sign of appointed leadership not working well, but potential to grow its capabilities.

It is very expensive and time consuming to go about hiring the right leadership. If you get the mixture wrong, you can compromise the organisation and its culture. If you have the people with potential in house, it is infinitely less risky to empower them to take on leadership roles and hire keen junior staff. It is also a more sustainable of of growing. Flourishing reverse leadership usually does not happen by accident. The organisation must have a culture of recognising and valuing such effort.

If you get this right, people will be less inclined to leave. It is all about attitude.

Project Managers … visionary leaders or shepherds?

I was having an interesting philosophical discussion with some peers. Opinions were expressed on how project managers need to be visionary leaders. Most project management courses do not cover much on the art of leadership. I tend to think if you have to teach leadership, then it is already a lost cause. Although leaders are not necessarily born, they see an opportunity and make their mark. Those that wait to be taught or asked by definition are not suitable leaders. But this was an interesting discussion. Do project managers need to be visionary leaders?

Let us look at the traits for leaders. If you look at any leader, what is the one thing you remember about them? I am not old enough to remember many contemporary political leaders – Gandhi, Churchill etc. The one that I do remember is Mandela. These people have a vision of the future, have the courage to express it when it may not be the orthodoxy and have the ability to project their vision even through difficult times. It is the same in business. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not get Apple and Microsoft to where these companies are on a bed of roses. But neither the political or business leaders actually organized the mass rallies or the next version of the software.

The case of business leaders is even more interesting. The reason they are the leaders is because they see a gap in the market and have ideas to fill it. They want to be the first to market. They do not always appreciate what it would take to get there. They are also wired to see many possibilities and constantly thinking about the next big thing. They utilize people with the right knowledge to analyze which of these have wings and will fly, and which ones are likely to sink. The ones that fly then need to be managed to successful delivery.

Is project management the same? Well … part of it. The emphasis on vision and leadership is more appropriate at the top management level of the organization and even maybe at program or portfolio management level. Once these are defined into projects, the emphasis on leadership is different. I think of that leadership more akin to a young military officer. If you have seen the mini series Band of Brothers, I say Major Winters is the project manager. The role itself comes with an expected level of respect. But it is not given by default. You have to earn it by your track record.

Once you win over people by showing your aptitude they are willing to go beyond the call of duty for you. This is also a type of leadership, but different to the one that one that we had been talking about earlier. The goal is to win the individual battle, rather than focus on the overall war. He takes lessons from his team’s engagement and those that he sees of the other units. He marshals his resources to achieve his objectives. If he worries more about how the battalion is running its affairs, his troops will be left to fend for themselves. This is the type of leadership that can be applied to project management.

In project management, you provide leadership by understanding the context of the project and good communication, recognizing efforts and ensuring single purpose. When you have achieved trust of your project team, you have successfully become a leader.

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