Tag Archives: project-management

Key Areas for a Project Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week. When you look at qualified candidates for a role, you say “It’s all about the work.” We are looking at a project management role. What do you consider the three most important parts of project management?

Response:
Project Management is a classic Strata II role. From a macro level, it involves the coordination of people, materials, equipment and project sequence. Three core Key Result Areas (KRAs) drive the project forward.

  1. Project Planning (creating a comprehensive project plan including milestones and accountabilities).
  2. Task Checklist (documenting and tracking all the details for completion and quality).
  3. Project Schedule (creating and monitoring the project schedule, prioritizing and sequencing time frames associated with changing elements of a project).

The value adds for Project Management are project control, accuracy to project specifications, timeliness and completeness.

Other KRAs would include –

  • Pre-con Hand-off Meeting (critical meeting where pre-construction hands the project over to project management).
  • Punch List (audit of the project checklist, when everyone else thinks the project is complete).
  • Buy Out (assembling the list of material suppliers and subcontractors, with competitive cost information).
  • Customer Relations (creating the necessary customer relationship that addresses project discrepancies, project change orders and avoids litigation)

All of these would make the basis for a comprehensive role description for your Project Manager. -Tom

How to Interview for Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
All of our projects are different. We never know what our customers will want, in advance. It’s almost always a custom solution. So, when we are hiring a project manager, it’s difficult to determine what skills the candidate will need to be successful. That’s why, most of the time, we wing it, when it comes to interview questions. How can we do a better job in the interview, instead of just working off of the resume?

Response:
We may not know anything about the project, but we can still work on preparedness. So, think about behaviors connected to being prepared.

  • Diagnostic questions
  • Project planning
  • Short interval planning
  • Project adjustments
  • Discipline

The only way to work through an ill-defined or unknown project specification, is to define the project. You are accurate, that many customers don’t really know what they want. Sometimes your best contribution, in managing the project, is helping the customer to define the project. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made as the project meanders its way to completion?

Determine questions related to diagnosis, planning and project adjustments.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on where the customer was not clear on what they wanted?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • What was the purpose for the project?
  • How did the customer describe the project?
  • What was the real project?
  • How did you determine the real project specification?
  • What changed about the project when it was better defined?
  • What changed about the resources required when the project was better defined?
  • What changed about the budget when the project was better defined?
  • How did you explain the changes in resources and budget to the customer?
  • How many people on your project team?
  • How did you explain the changes to your project team?
  • What mid-course corrections were required?
  • How did you discover the mid-course correction?
  • How did you determine the overall project met the initial purpose of the project?

These questions will get you better data, than just winging it off the resume.

Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Response:
Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom

Running One Project Different from Ten Projects

“So, Roger. I want you to think about something. You did well on the first project we gave you. So we gave you another project. That means two projects,” I explained. “You were doing so well, we gave you a third project and a fourth project. With a fifth project, you are beginning to struggle. You short cut the planning, your schedules are breaking down and things are being forgotten.”

“I guess I didn’t realize,” Roger started. “You see, I have been keeping all that stuff in my head. I am pretty smart, have a good short term memory, so keeping track of the details for one or two projects is pretty easy. The more you gave me to do, the more I had to start writing things down. It’s a different way of keeping track of things for me. I used to just remember.”

“Roger, I want you to think about this. I am not going assign you more projects right now, but if I did, if I assigned you five more projects on top of the five projects you already have, what would you have to do differently to manage all of that detail?”

“I would probably have to put in some overtime,” Roger replied.

“No overtime. What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects?”

It’s Not About Project Buffers

Sharon was perplexed. “We missed the deadline,” she explained. “And my Project Manager doesn’t seem to understand why.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I wanted to know what caused the delay in the schedule that put us behind, and he just shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not my fault,’ he says. ‘Circumstances outside of my control.’ I mean, I know the customer changed the spec on the project, and that we had to go back for another permit, but I expect my Project Manager to anticipate things like that.”

“How so?”

“Projects of this length always have changes, customers always change their mind, that’s why we use project buffers in the schedule,” Sharon sorted out.

“What could you have done differently?”

“Me?” she quizzed. “I’m not the Project Manager, it was his job.”

“Who assigned this project to this Project Manager?” I pressed.

Sharon stopped. She had overlooked that one small detail. “You are right,” she began. “I hold my Project Manager accountable for the output of the Project Team, but I am accountable for the output of my Project Manager. I should have had more interim meetings with him to see how we were using the project buffers, to help him make decisions and solve problems.”

Blame and Excuses

“It’s like they fight all the time,” Sheldon explained. “Each manager thinks they know how to run the whole company, if I would just step out of the way.”

“What’s happening, explain the friction?” I asked.

“Once again, the project was late and when it was delivered to the client, it didn’t work. Pretty simple explanation. It’s the fix that’s complicated. When we only did one project at a time, everything seemed to work well. On time, on budget, never missed a beat. Then we got two projects, three. We now have seven projects in-house and they all have problems, missed deadlines, cost overruns and quality issues.”

“And?”

“The project manager is ripping his hair out. The response he is getting from all the other managers is a mix of blame and excuses,” Sheldon shrugged.

“What do they say?” I prompted.

“Want a list?” Sheldon chuckled.

  • The Sales Manager says he asked Engineering for timetable before he promised a delivery date.
  • The Engineering Manager says there were too many changes in the scope of work.
  • The Ops Manager says the timetable from Engineering was unrealistic.
  • The Accounting Manager says the budget didn’t allow for any profit.
  • The Marketing Manager says that if he had known the priority of the client, he would have put more people into the product rollout.

“So, who is right?” I smiled.

“That’s the problem. They are all right. Every word is true.”

Evidence, Not Hope

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:
How do you un-do some internal promotions that probably shouldn’t have happened? The person is just not effective in their new Stratum III role?

Response:
Troubleshooting effectiveness in a role can be traced to one of these four factors –

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest (Value for the work)
  • Reasonable Behavior

I rely on the manager’s judgment to determine which of the factors may be in play. In my Time Span workshop, I describe a team member with the following characteristics –

  • Worked for the company – 8 years
  • Always shows up early, stays late
  • Wears a snappy company uniform (belt around waist, cap on straight)
  • Knows the company Fight Song
  • Makes the best potato salad at the company picnic

And yet, is under performing in his role. Put that list against the four factors and I arrive at capability mis-matched for the role. To do a thorough inspection, I would examine each of the Key Result Areas in the role to see where the underperformance occurs. It is likely there are parts of the role that are done well, and parts where we observe underperformance. The mis-match is likely to occur on those longest Time Span task assignments.

In your question, you describe a Stratum III role. I would examine each of the KRAs and task assignments to see which is the culprit and modify that specific task assignment. The modification might be to break the longer task into a series of shorter tasks with more oversight, or to shift an analytic step to another resource.

All of this can be avoided by assigning project work to team members BEFORE they receive promotions. Successful completion, evidence is what I look for, not hopes and promises.