“He’s clueless,” Alan said to his peer, Tracy as they walked out of the meeting.
Alan had gone into his presentation to his VP, Amir thinking it was in the bag. What in his mind should have been a slam dunk turned out to be 30 minutes of inquisition-like questions, debating of assumptions, and skepticism of his solution, all followed by a “We’re not going to do this.”
“I just can’t believe how out of touch he is,” Alan continued. “The solution is as plain as the nose on his face, and he can’t see beyond his own incompetence!”
Tracy was quiet as the two walked and Alan continued to sputter. After a few minutes, Alan couldn’t help but notice Tracy’s silence.
“What do you think?” Alan asked.
“How about we go in the conference room and chat,” Tracy said.
“Sure.” Alan had always respected Tracy’s judgment and how she commanded the respect of not just peers and followers, but also her management. The two went into the conference room, Alan shut the door, and they sat.
“Alan, you’re incredibly bright and very passionate about your work.”
“But. . .” Alan said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“You haven’t yet mastered how to sell up.”
Recently I received two LinkedIn requests to connect, one from a rep at a well-known insurance company and the other from a financial planner at a well-known financial services company. In the first request the rep told me that the insurance company notified him that my construction company is eligible for a special program that grants an immediate discount.
Sounds great; the problem is I don't own a construction company.
Twice I asked him to tell me who at the insurance company notified him. He finally responded with a “nobody notified us,” even though in his original message he was “notified by <insurance company> that my construction business qualifies for the discount.”
My very first job was baking bagels at age 15 back in Connecticut. When my family moved to Arizona a year later, I bagged groceries and stocked shelves until I graduated high school, then sold clothes while in college. After getting my degree I joined Arthur Andersen & Co. as management information consultant where I worked in Phoenix, Chicago, and Seattle. After 11 years I went to Microsoft where I worked for nine years before leaving to homeschool our son. My professional life now is as an author, publisher, consultant, and disability inclusion advocate. It’s a journey that I never anticipated and am thankful for the great life learnings it afforded me.
It was one of the worst meetings in Greg’s project management career.
“We are slipping by a month,” Greg said to his leader Kavita.
“How long have you known about this?” Kavita asked.
“Um, two weeks. I’ve been working hard to pull it back in but wasn’t able to do.”
“And I’m just finding out about this now? Why didn’t you ask for help?”
Greg stammered. “I thought I could handle it on my own.”
“This is really bad, Greg. We have customers relying on us to deliver on time. Sue, you work with Greg to see where we’re at and see if we can pull this thing back in. Hopefully it’s not worse than a month.”
“Will do, Kavita,” Sue said.
“Good, I need to northwind my management and let them know we may have a problem. Get back to me by end of day with your assessment. Clear?”
“Clear,” Greg said as he looked down, avoiding eye contact with Kavita.
“I’m disappointed you didn’t ask for help,” Kavita said as she left the room.
Asking for help. Something that by nature we know how to do. Whether it’s in the form of a baby crying, a kindergartener needing his shoe tied, or a teenager needing a parent’s help with a flat tire, asking for help is something each and every one of us has experience with. Yet in a professional setting, asking for help can be viewed as a sign of weakness; something that could reflect negatively on a person’s ability to deliver.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“If you do this, you’ll definitely increase revenue,” Mark said. Mark was a brash young consultant out to make a name for himself on his first consulting gig since graduating with an MBA. The client, Paula, was an experienced sales manager. She patiently listened to Mark’s presentation filled with consultant-speak and tired cliches. It was the “definitely increase revenue” claim that got her to chime in.
“Increasing revenue is always a great thing. Tell me, Mark, where have you done this before?” Paula asked.
“Well, our firm has done this with a lot of clients.”
“That may be true, but you’re pitching me on work that you specifically would be doing for us. I’m curious as to where you’ve specifically succeeded with a project like this and your experience with increasing revenue. Where have you done this before?”
Mark stammered for an answer. “I would have a team working with me that has the experience to deliver.”
“Mark, I’ve been around the block a lot and can tell when someone isn’t being up-front with me. You’ve never done a project like this before, have you?”
“Well, yeah; when working on my MBA we did a case study on this. I’m confident I can do the work and deliver results for you, Paula.”
Paula smiled politely. “Very good, Mark; let me think about it, OK?”
“Certainly. Can I call you next week?” Mark asked.
“I’ll be out, but I’ll give you a ring if we decide to pursue further. Thanks, Mark.”
Paula got up from her chair, shook hands with Mark and led him out of the office.
“Sheesh, what a poser,” Paula thought as she walked back to her desk, knowing she would not be calling Mark back.
Fred was livid with his performance appraisal. He had consistently been a strong project manager in his organization for several years, having received top-of-tier raises and bonuses from Gary, his previous manager. Earlier in the year he was reorganized into a new organization led by Janet, a seasoned and well-respected leader in the company. While Fred’s raise and bonus were respectable, he was not rated in the top tier of the organization. The two sat down to discuss his performance appraisal.
“Janet, this is the first time since working for this company I haven’t gotten an outstanding rating. I delivered everything on time, on budget, and within scope. Gary always gave me an outstanding rating and I did everything this year I’ve done in the past. What gives?”
“I’m glad we’re talking about this, Fred. Do you remember the discussion we had when you first joined my organization?”
“I do,” Fred said. “We talked about needing to be excellent in our delivery.”
“Yes, and what else did we talk about?”
“Thanks for meeting with me today,” Ann said as she sat down with Jim.
“Jim, I’m starting up a new customer relationship management project and my boss suggested I talk to a couple of other project managers to get some lessons learned.”
“I’m happy to help. First off, on my last project we delivered our intended scope, came in under budget and ahead of schedule.”
“That’s impressive,” Ann said. “How did you do it?”
Jim went on for a about 30 minutes talking about what a success the project was, and how there was a lot Ann could learn from their project.
“That all sounds great,” Ann said. “If you had it to do all over again, would you do anything differently?”
Jim paused for a moment. “Well, our user representative wasn’t pulling his weight.” I would have demanded he be replaced.”
“So your lesson learned is about the user assigned to the project?”
“OK, thanks for the time, Jim,” Ann said as she got up and left.
“Something’s not quite right about this,” she thought as she went back to her desk. She decided to interview a couple of the leads on Jim’s project and got a different story. They told her how the project was in chaos from the beginning, how the claims of under-budget and ahead of schedule were only after management granted additional budget and schedule relief due to an unplanned overage and schedule slip, and that none of the leads would work with Jim again.
One of my column readers recently sent in this question: One of our senior project managers left abruptly in the middle of a 3 year million $ contract. What experience and education would you consider in promoting a replacement?
Ooh, good meaty problem. Not so simple a solution.
So okay, Microsoft Project is a super flexible tool in helping you as a project manager define your project tasks, dependencies, and resources. Quite frankly, though, the workplan you define in MS Project is only as good as the thought that goes into it. Too often I've seen savvy MS Project users completely bungle a project because, while the tool was being used appropriately, the workplan didn't make sense to the project team and didn't reflect what really needed to be done. The team consistently expressed confusion about what needed to be done by when because the project workplan wasn't reflective of the actual work which needed to be done. Great exercise in using MS Project, but poor execution of the project. Blech.
A sad tale of a how a sponsor/PM relationship killed a project...
Exec identifies a need for a project and nominates self as sponsor. PM gets assigned to project and assembles project team. Sponsor is vague about problem to be solved other than "we need a new system". PM can't communicate problem to be solved to the team because he doesn't understand what the problem is. Sponsor continues to ask for more and more things to be included in project, PM doesn't have courage to say no. PM treats sponsor as "that person in the corner office" and doesn't know how to ask for help, so he escalates everything. Sponsor has to make some tough decisions but is unwilling to do so because of the political fallout. PM provides bad information about decision alternatives so sponsor ignores him. Due to changing priorities project no longer makes sense to do, but PM lobbies to keep the project going. Sponsor loses interest because there are bigger fish to fry. PM and team are disillusioned because sponsor doesn't care. Project dies a slow death. R.I.P.
While this is a fictional story, you can undoubtedly relate to most of these things happening on one project or another in your career. The sponsor/PM partnership on a project is one of those "soft skill" factors that gets frequently overlooked when assessing a PM's skills but is a key determinant in the success or failure of a project. Under a healthy partnership, the sponsor and PM work as a singular unit to ensure the project gets what it needs to be as successful as possible using only as many resources as absolutely necessary to secure success. Under a less than healthy relationship the project will undoubtedly cost more in time and money assuming it even gets completed at all.
Throughout my career I've been both a sponsor and a PM and have first-hand experience in how this relationship needs to work from both sides of the desk. Through my experience, I've locked down on ten truths which I feel are crucial to securing a healthy sponsor/PM partnership. See if these resonate with you:
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