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Project Failure Warning Signs

failing project recoveryWe all know how projects should be initiated. After a thorough planning process in which the  crystal clear scope is laid out and everyone agrees on a sound plan, all team members go to work and “just” execute the plan. So much for the theory. Enterprise Project Management Main Page

In reality, however, project failure rates are high. Projects often do not get initiated the right way and you must launch a recovery of a failing project. Perhaps someone else did the planning and you are assigned to take over the execution phase. Or someone else didn’t get the project done right and you have been asked to fix it. In any case, I hope that this post will get you on your way to successfully manage whatever someone throws at you. Project Failure

The first and most important task for you in taking over an already planned or already running project is to understand the project’s scope. If you don’t know where the ship should go, you won’t be able to steer it. This is especially important when you are asked to take over a project. You must understand the scope and if you can’t find a solid scope statement, remember that it is never to late to compile one. If you don’t understand the scope, chances are you are not alone. Without a solid scope, you will have a hard time finishing what someone else started. I found it most useful to actually draw a picture that shows what is and what is not in the scope. Make sure that at least you and the sponsor are crystal clear about what you have to deliver. Project Rescue

Second, try to find the project charter and the stakeholder register. The project charter should tell you why you do what you do and what your boundaries are as a project manager. This is very important because you will have to maneuver your project around many obstacles and it is always good to know what the boundaries are. The stakeholder register is important because it lets you get in touch with the people who are most important to the project.

Third, introduce yourself to the major stakeholders and the project team. Make sure they have the same understanding of the project scope that you have. Get the project team together and for an update on the current status. This is also a good time to go over the project plan with the team. You might wonder why you should go over the project plan so late in the game. Well if you know the scope, it will be easier for you to spot weaknesses in the plan, especially if you go over the plan with the team.

Last but not least, if you identify a major weakness, you should address it. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but you should point out what want to do differently. Project Catastrophes

So here is the bottom line: don’t be shy to take up the challenge of rescuing a failing project. However, I urge you to start with the scope. Your job as the project manager is to keep the big picture in mind. If you have to take over a project to turn it around, you will find that most often the project failed because of scope creep or other scope related issues. Tackle the scope first, all other things will fall into place.


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Project Team Building Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project team building is a critical success factor. Every project manager wants a project team that is composed of highly motivated, aggressive problem solvers who are totally committed to their deliverables, budget and due date and completely support all the other members of the team. Are there teams like this? Yes, but very very few. All too often we wind up with a  team composed  of people like this. Leading Teams Main Page

Project sponsors and stakeholders like to talk about the project team during the initiation of new “critically important” projects. It’s easy to identify what you want from your team. But deciding how to build one is a different matter. There are certainly team-building classes and facilitators who can help create a more effective culture. But it’s all too easy for those behavioral changes to vanish as soon as the training session is over. Leadership & Team Performance

How To Manage a Dysfunctional Team - Video

So it’s pretty much up to the project manager to build that kind of project team. It’s not done by talking about how everybody’s going to be highly motivated, aggressive problem-solvers, etc…. No, it’s done in three critical instances of a project manager’s work with the project team. These instances are moments of truth that establish the culture of the team, communicate the expectations of the project manager and teach the project team how to work with the project manager. Leadership and Team Assignments

These moments of truth occur at particularly important times in the relationship between each team member and the project manager. The first occurs when the project manager assigns a task to a team member. Bad techniques in this assignment process can undermine any trust that existed between the team member and the project manager.  They also alert the team member to start protecting themselves from being blamed for project failure. We’ll discuss the right techniques to use later. Effective Feedback

The second moment of truth occurs when the work estimate and duration of the task are established. If the project manager handles this one poorly, the team member has alarms going off about how they’re being set up for failure. Team motivation

Finally, how the project manager handles bad news about an assignment is critically important to maintaining a productive attitude on the part of the team member when we  encounter the inevitable problems. Team Types


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Effective Feedback

Dick Billows, PMP

An important part of a leader’s job is setting norms of behavior and conduct. These help the team work together effectively and efficiently. You, as the leader, must set and enforce these norms of behavior. You have to reinforce positive behavior and change negative behavior.  Part of behavior change comes when you criticize a team member’s behavior. This usually happens in private, but occasionally in public. Leading Teams Main Page

Effective criticism has the most impact early in the life of a team. During the “forming” and “norming” phases of team development, team members are most sensitive to your efforts to steer their behavior. A small disappointed frown from you when one team member criticizes another is often sufficient to stifle that behavior. Later on, it is much harder for you to change or stop undesirable behaviors because they have become ingrained.  It is important to avoid punishing people with your criticism. Punishment doesn’t change how people behave and it can produce negative results.shutterstock_169678448

Let’s look at the right and wrong way to handle several situations with effective criticism.

Effective Criticism Situation: Team Member Arrives Late For a Meeting Leadership and Team Assignments

You had e-mailed the project team the agenda for a 30 minute planning meeting.  The group assembled several minutes early, except for one team member.  There was informal and light–hearted conversation since most of the team members knew each other.  Then you started the meeting at the appointed time.  After 15 minutes, the missing team member arrived and made a couple of humorous comments as he took his seat.

There are two parts to getting the change in behavior you want.  The most important part is to set the standard for timeliness. It may sound silly that you need to tell professionals to be on time for meetings.  However, being late for meetings might be OK on some teams. You must make your expectation and the standard clear because it may differ from the norms they have on other teams. Let’s look at the ineffective and effective ways to handle the first part. Team building

Ineffective Standard-setting Response:

“By being late you have wasted all of our time and that is really unprofessional and sloppy. If you do that again, you and I are going to have trouble.”

You are trying to punish the late arrival and this threat is an overreaction.  It only makes you look silly. There is a better way to define what you expect from all the team members.

Effective Criticism and Standard-setting Response:

“When people are late for meetings I have two bad choices.  I can interrupt the meeting to let them catch up. But this wastes everyone else’s time. Or I can let the late arrival figure things out as we move on.  Those are both bad choices. So please, let’s all be on time for meetings.”

The next part of the criticism is changing his behavior, not punishing him. So you should talk to him in private and give effective criticism. Two approaches to that next conversation with the late team member are below.

Ineffective Criticism Response:

“I always find that people who are late also do sloppy work and are very unprofessional.”

Stating stereotypes of people who are late as being sloppy and unprofessional is insulting. It may actually get in the way of changing the person’s behavior. You need to focus only on the behavior you want, not on personality traits.

Effective Criticism Response:

We are all too busy to have our time wasted by someone who is late.  Please help me set the standard that everyone arrives on time.  Thank you.”

There is no personal criticism here or implication that the person who arrived late is a bad person.  This is a clear comparison of the behavior you want, compared to what you got.  The request for their help is a nice touch to make the criticism more effective.

Effective Criticism Situation: Functional Turf Wars

As you continued to work with the team, you noticed sharp remarks exchanged between the team members from Marketing and Operations. The barbs seemed to focus on a previous, failed project.  Each side was implying that the other was to blame for the failure.  You quickly decided that you had to do two things. First, you had to define the norm and the kind of behavior you want from the team.  Second, you needed to effectively criticize the barbs being made by each side to make clear how their behavior deviated from what you want.

Ineffective Criticism Norm Definition Response:

“I don’t want to hear any more of these inter-departmental turf wars.  It’s stupid and completely unprofessional.”

That statement is publicly criticizing certain people on a personal level. It produces resentment, not better behavior.

Effective Criticism Norm Definition Response:

“Let’s focus on the future and the brilliant things we will deliver as a team, not on failed projects from the past.”

Next you need to speak privately to the people involved about how their comments differed from the behavior you want. Let’s look at the effective and ineffective ways to do that.

Ineffective Criticism:

“You can hate the people from (pick a department name) on your own time. On my project, you have to work with them. So get used to cooperating with each other.”

Effective Criticism:

“Everyone will have a separate, measured accountability on this project. And, we will know if someone is not pulling their weight or trying to shift work off to other departments.  So let’s not re-fight old wars. Let’s focus on making this project a success.”

Effective Criticism Situation: Not Meeting Assignment Requirements

You cannot wait for delivery of a bad assignment to define your expectations. You must do it upfront during the initial project planning phase.

Ineffective Criticism Standard-setting:

“Top management is watching this project very closely and they will know very quickly if someone is not doing a good job on their assignments.  So don’t let bad work on this project ruin your career.”

This is the perfect way to have people start working on their excuses for avoiding blame before they even start work.  There is a better way to define your expectations.

Effective Criticism Standard-setting:

“The most important part of my job as project manager is to make sure you understand everything that is expected of you. That’s why we are developing work packages that define everything you must do to succeed.  Work packages describe the deliverable with a metric and the standards you must meet. They also list all the documentation that you have to produce. If you produce what’s in the work package, your assignment will be a success.  If people in the organization want something that is missing from the work package, that is my fault. It’s not yours.”

As you execute the plan, there may be assignments that fall short of the expectation defined in the work package. Let’s look at the wrong and right ways to handle that situation.

Ineffective Criticism Work Expectation:

“You have not given me what I asked for because you didn’t listen.  This is all wrong due to your poor work.”

This is too vague and does not tell the team member what they did wrong.  It also heaps a lot of personal accusations on them. This will not change their behavior for the better.

Effective Criticism Work Expectation:

“I guess the work package I wrote was not clear.  I would like you to complete the deliverable with this new, better defined work package.”

Taking some of the blame, whether deserved or not, will make the criticism more acceptable to the team member. And, with the focus on the future, it may improve their attention to detail going forward.

Effective Criticism Summary

It’s easy to handle situations that involve good news, like finishing early and under budget. But it’s challenging to handle situations that involve effectively managing the project that is late and over budget due to team members’ poor performance. You need to focus on changing their behavior, not punishing them. You do this with effective criticism delivered in private. It’s easy to lose sight of how your own behavior and emotions can get in the way of building a high-performing project team.  To master effective criticism skills, you need to practice handling these situations the right way.

Contact us about enrolling in our private, online Project Management Basics course to learn these skills. You work with an expert PM and have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences as you need.

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Project Launch

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The project launch meeting has several purposes. These include:

– establishing expectations for performance and behavior

– explaining how team members’ tasks are connected to the scope and objective of the project

– explaining how the project result will affect the team members’ performance evaluation

– explaining how good performance on their task(s) can benefit the team members’ careers.

– generating enthusiasm and commitment to the project. Project Launch Main Page

To achieve all these benefits, the project sponsor and project manager need to carefully plan the project launch. Depending on the project, there may be certain issues or fears that are affecting the team members’ and stakeholders’ attitudes about the project. The project launch meeting is not the time to “downplay” or try and minimize these concerns. Instead, we should use the launch meeting to directly address people’s concerns about the impact of the project on their departments and their daily work.
Unfortunately, too often launch meetings leave team members wondering how they can avoid being blamed if the project fails.They may also be concerned about finger-pointing when things don’t go right. Watch this video as a sponsor and PM conduct the worst launch meeting in the history of project management. I’ll point out some of the mistakes the project manager and sponsor make. Then we will listen to the project team members privately describe their reaction to the meeting. Finally, I will analyze what went wrong and how to do it better.

You will learn all the right skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your industry specialty.

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Leadership & Team Assignments

Dick Billows, PMP
DicK Billows, PMP

There are two alternative techniques for assigning work to your team members. The easiest is to assign them activities; like items on a “To Do” list. That doesn’t take much thinking and it’s usually a bit vague. The harder way is to assign accountability for producing a deliverable with acceptance criteria. That takes a lot of thinking because you must specify exactly what you want and how you will measure the team member’s work.  Deliverables are always better assignments because the team member will understand exactly what you expect of them, before they start work. People perform at a higher level with deliverables and that is the key to consistent project success.  Let’s discuss how to define and assign deliverables. Leading Teams Main Page

There are several components in an assignment. leadership & team assignmentsYou need an estimate of the amount of work the deliverable will take. You also need to identify the risks in producing the deliverable. A team member often needs to receive work products from others to produce their deliverable. All that information is best stated in a work package.  The work package is a one-page document that supports excellent performance because it gives clear assignments to team members. The work package also lets team members participate in estimating the amount of work and the approach to the tasks. But let’s get back to the key element, the performance expectation.

Deliverables versus Activities

There is a clear distinction between project team assignments that are activities and those that are deliverables. Activities are “To Do’s” like “teach the payroll system training class.” Deliverables are end results like, “After the payroll class, 85% of the attendees can enter 30 pay changes per hour.” With each of these assignments, a team member can teach a payroll class. But the content will be different with the deliverable assignment. That’s because the trainer is not just conducting a  class. They have a measured result they are accountable for delivering.  Project managers who design team member assignments as deliverables have notable advantages over those who use activities. Before listing these advantages, let’s make sure the differences are clear between team assignments made by managing with activities and those with deliverables. Effective Feedback

Project Team Assignments Example #1: Assignment to a Teenager

Activity: “Clean up your room.”

Achievement: “Put all those empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage.”

With the activity assignment, we have only told the teenager to perform an action without defining it. The teenager has to guess what the parent wants. There can be many interpretations of what this activity involves. So it is likely that you won’t get the end result you’re looking for. The key flaw in this (and any) activity assignment is that there is no clear performance expectation. There is no performance standard to measure their actions against. There is only a vague idea of what a “clean room” looks like. As a result, we can’t gain the teen’s commitment to the assignment. And we can’t reasonably deliver consequences for their good or bad performance. Team building

With the deliverable of “all those empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage,” we have the potential for better performance and commitment. The expectation is clear and it is possible to get the teenager to commit to it. If there are still empty can and candy wrappers on the floor after the teen says they are done, they will have to agree that the standard wasn’t met. On the other hand, if they also put their textbooks and computer on the desk, we will have to agree that they exceeded the standard. In this example of a deliverable, any rewards and punishments have a better chance of being seen as fair because the standard was clear.

Project Team Assignments Example #2: Assignment to a Team Member

Activity: “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”

Deliverable: “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.”

With the activity assignment, the project manager must continuously check the team member’s work to guide them. That’s because the team member cannot have a clear idea of what the PM wants. (It’s also possible the PM doesn’t know what they should achieve.) The team member doesn’t know whether to develop 200 recommendations to eliminate all turnover or just a few to bring it down a little. This leads to a game of “Did I get the right answer?” each time the team member thinks they are done.  The team member does some work and brings their recommendations to the PM asking, “Is this what you wanted?” The answer to this question is usually “No.” Then the PM blames the team member, saying, “You didn’t understand.” So the team member goes back to the drawing board, frustrated and irritated.

The deliverable assignment solves these problems. The project team member knows what’s expected and doesn’t have to guess. The PM has a better opportunity to gain the team member’s commitment and positive or negative consequences will be clear and fair. Additionally, the team member can get a sense of satisfaction from meeting the expectation.

So why do PMs assign team members activities rather than deliverables? The answer is that it’s much easier and safer than assigning achievements.  There are two reasons for this. First, by assigning activities, the PM doesn’t have to think through the situation and commit to exactly what he wants. They have some wiggle room to change their mind on what they want. Second, it is difficult for the PM to make a mistake when assigning activities. Only the person doing the work can be wrong. This is particularly devastating for the team member if the PM doesn’t protect them from the sponsor’s displeasure. Weak PMs always use activity assignments because it’s safe for them and always leaves them wiggle room.

Now let’s look at some more good and bad assignment examples. The bad ones are more entertaining so we’ll start with them.

Project Team Assignments Example #3: Counting the Wrong Thing

Here are a few examples of counting the wrong thing on a customer service improvement project. The project scope is defined as “Provide World Class Customer Service that Delights the Customer.”

  • A PM measures the engineers’ performance by the number of lines of code each one writes. The engineer with the highest total gets a lunch with the CEO.
  • A PM measures the trainers’ performance by ratings the class attendees give each trainer. The trainer with the highest rating receives a certificate of appreciation.
  • A PM measures the performance of team members by counting the number of interviews each person conducts. The team member with the most interviews gets publicly recognized at a status meeting.

What performance will the PM get from project team assignments like these? Well, the engineers will write a lot of lines of code and some of it may benefit the customer service division. But a lot will not. The attendees in the trainers’ classes will have a fun time and give the class/trainer a high rating. But they won’t learn much. The team members will conduct a lot of interviews but much of the information will be gathered in a hurried manner and may be useless.

The project manager in these examples counted the activity being performed and got the results he deserved. These activities produced high volumes of whatever the PM was counting, even if it contributed very little business value. The PM most likely did not know what business value the project needed to deliver. So he created assignments that were easily identified activities.

Project Team Assignments Example #4: Counting Only Dates

Another form of counting the wrong thing occurs when the due date or duration is the only metric. Usually, the due date comes from an executive and does not consider the amount of work to be done or the availability of the people to do it. The due date of each assignment is picked to support the entire project’s date. In this situation, the team members have no commitment to their assignments’ dates and they often recognize (even before work starts) that the dates are impossible.

At each status meeting the PM asks, “Are you on track to hit your due dates? You committed to them.”

Most team members give the PM an optimistic thumbs up. Then one day a truthful person says, “No, that date is impossible. There is no way I can hit it.” The PM gets angry and from them on, everyone reports they are on target to meet their dates. They don’t mention that they’re counting on miracles to do so. When the due date draws near, the team members slap together whatever they can and turn it in. It’s poor quality work, but at least it’s on time. The organization then spends months and thousands of dollars to fix it.

Project sponsors drive much of this “due date behavior” when all they focus on is the due dates of team assignments and the project as a whole. This is not to suggest that the dates are not important; they are. But delivering junk by the due date does not make the project a success. In all honesty, most project sponsors are used to projects with only dates for tracking progress. Too many project managers don’t report anything else that is measurable. Everything else is vague, subjective statements. So it’s not surprising that sponsors like dates. They are objectively measurable and unambiguous.

What project managers need to do is to count the right things. They need to count the business value an assignment or a project produces, the date, the cost and the risk(s). These techniques take a bit of time but they yield enormous benefits. Let’s see how you do that.

Top-Down Decomposition to Create a Hierarchy of Deliverables for Assignments

You must work with the sponsor to define measured deliverables for the project scope and the major deliverables leading to it. This includes acceptance criteria the sponsor will use to measure success. Let’s use the customer service project example again. This time the scope definition the sponsor sets is “Complete 95% of customer phone calls within 3 minutes with less than 3% calling back about the same problem.” This is a clear measured outcome. Next, you decompose it (break it down) into smaller achievements that support the scope.

As you break down the scope into its IT system deliverables, you come to the GUI (screen display) that an engineer has to develop for the customer service reps to use. That measured achievement could be “Customer service rep sees 6 months of customer history within 4 seconds of entering the customer’s name or number.” Please note that this achievement is measured in the users’ business, not the IT system engineering department’s business. This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than counting lines of code that the PM used in the earlier situation.

The trainer has a different achievement, too. The assignment could be “80% of the class attendees can answer the top 20 customer questions in 120 seconds or less using the new GUI.” Again, what you are counting is more relevant to the project’s scope than whether the attendees had a good time in class.

The team members interviewing the customer service managers could have a measured business outcome like, “Managers reach consensus on the ten most important customer service problems.”

That sounds pretty straightforward.

It takes some time and good technique but what you are now counting and measuring is relevant to achieving the project’s scope. Project team assignments defined in measured terms like those above make performance expectations clear to the team members before they start work. That encourages their commitment and makes estimating and tracking much more precise. It also lets you spot problems early, when you have a chance to fix them.

Our deliverable-based assignment technique is a key to our Achievement-driven Project Methodology. It pays important dividends in managing projects to achieve successful results. When you assign a project team member a deliverable, you have a much easier time of clarifying expectations, gaining commitment and giving rewards based on performance. All the techniques in this article are part of our private, online training courses delivered over the Internet or as in-person seminars for organizations.

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Project Team Motivation

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project team motivation is every bit as important as developing a creative project plan, creating a tight schedule and spotting problems early. Too many project managers assume that their team members will be unaffected by their behavior in assigning work, solving problems and making estimates. That is very far from the truth because those three activities are what we call a project managers moments of truth with the project team. How the project manager treats the team members and how he values their input go a long way to determining the teams overall motivation. Let’s talk about these three moments of truth. Project Management Skills Main Page

Are you leading your team from in front or marching behind them carrying a snow shovel like that poor guy marching behind elephants at the circus? There are three moments of truth for project team motivation when leading your project team that go a long way to determining their motivation and if your project will succeed or fail. Those critical moments are; gaining commitment to estimates, handling “bad news” and reporting status. The first moment of truth happens while you’re estimating with a project team member. If you have an open discussion and the team member feels that they were able to participate in setting the work estimate for their tasks, you will get a much higher level of commitment to the estimate than if you arbitrarily set the number. The second moment of truth occurs when you deal with variances on a project. Your behavior in the face of this “bad news” largely determines whether your team members tell you about problems early or hide them from you because they don’t want to be blamed. The last moment of truth occurs when the sponsor is disappointed in the project progress. How you handle this is critical for your credibility.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

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