Project Planning from the Top Down

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

In many organizations, managers and senior management view project planning as a waste of time. To them, the project plan is needless. They want to “start work immediately without wasting time in useless planning meetings and creating mounds of paperwork.” As a result, project managers have difficulty engaging management in the project-planning task. Why do they have this attitude? Why are they unwilling to invest their time in project planning? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • They have never seen a project properly planned so they have no understanding of how smoothly things can run.
  • Project planning requires that the sponsor and stakeholders know what business result they want the project to produce. Often executives start projects to fix a problem they have just heard about. They have no idea how to solve it.
  • The sponsor and stakeholders are unwilling to make commitments about the acceptance criteria for the project’s deliverables. They are unwilling to take the risk of specifying precisely what they want. Project Plan Template Main Page

Project Planning: A Waste of Time?

Why do many managers and executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time? The first and most common reason is that the organization doesn’t exercise control or justification for starting a new project. There is no reason to plan if they can start a project any time they want and the organization doesn’t require a return on investment (payback) from doing the project. On the other hand, executives must plan their projects if the organization requires the following:

  • a cost-benefit analysis for new projects
  • a clear specification for the business results the project will produce
  • its cost and duration.

A second and very common reason for these attitudes is that many executives have never sponsored, run or even worked on a properly planned project. As a result, they have no idea of the benefits a properly planned project can deliver. Their projects usually miss their planned completion dates and budgets. They rarely deliver the project scope or any business value. Project teams don’t know what they are accountable for delivering, what performance level the project manager expects or how the PM will evaluate their work. As a result, the project manager must tell the team members what to do each week. The executives also have no practical experience with change control. They don’t realize that a well-conceived project plan gives them and the project manager tools to manage changes to the scope, budget, quality and resources.

Despite the reasons why the executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time and resources, you (as the project manager) must persuade them of the benefits of doing a project plan. When executives want to start a project, you must describe the right steps and explain how that process benefits the organization. Finally, you must discuss the required top down project planning techniques, documents and meetings. Executives also need to understand that you cannot use the same project planning techniques for every project. You should not bury a small project in needless paperwork. But a large strategic project will suffer if there isn’t sufficient planning, control and risk management.

Project Planning: Top-Down Benefits

A well-planned project uses the top-down project planning technique. That means the sponsor identifies the overall scope of the project and the deliverable(s) the project has to produce. Then you and the sponsor identify the acceptance criteria that the executives will use to approve those deliverables. This lets you and every project team member know exactly what the executives want in a deliverable before you start work. On a well-run project, you and the team members don’t have to stop work to figure out what to do next. Each team member’s assignment or task is specifically defined so they know what a good job is before they begin work.project planning

Project teams that must stop and figure out what to do next are working on a project with a To Do list plan. The project manager planned the first thing they’re going to do, then the second and then the third. Things get a little vague after that so the team members must stop work and ask the PM what to do next. That process continues until the planned completion date is looming on the horizon. At that point, the PM and team members must stop work and plan what they can quickly finish before the completion date. This is a disaster for the project and the PM’s career.

When you use top-down project planning, you make as many of the decisions as possible during the planning process before you start work. This lets the team focus on executing, not re-planning the project. You save several hours of meetings, talks and arguments for every hour you spend planning before the work actually begins.

Top-down project planning also saves you from doing the wrong things on the project. That’s because you have done all the thinking on the deliverables before you start work. And that means you don’t incur the costs of having to produce “missing” deliverables at the last moment.
You are certain to have a failed project if you fall into the trap of starting work immediately without using the top-down project planning technique. The executives who forced you to start work quickly will be exceedingly dissatisfied with the results as well as the money and the time spent to produce them. The only way out of this situation is to explain to the project executives that success is a direct result of a solid planning effort.  You and the sponsor must define the scope of the work and the acceptance criteria that the project stakeholders will use to judge its success. That’s the key to top-down project planning. When you have a clear scope definition, you can break it down into high-level deliverables. Then you have the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS) that minimizes the amount of work required to deliver the project scope.

Consider our online project management courses to learn how to use all the tools and techniques for project management plans. You’ll work privately with an expert project manager as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and control the pace and schedule. You can have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Team-building: Moments of Truth

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project team building is a critical success factor. As a project manager, you want a project team of highly motivated, aggressive problem solvers. You want team members who are totally committed to their deliverables, budget and due dates. And you want them to support you and other team members. Do teams like this actually exist?  Yes, but they are very rare. Here’s how to build yours.

Many team members have suffered from the poor performance of other leaders and now you, the new project manager, have to fix it. If you don’t, bad team performance could kill your project (and your career).     Leading Teams Main Page

It’s easy to say you want a motivated and committed team on the new “critically important” project you’re going to manage. But how do you build one?  What team-building strategy should you follow? There are certainly team building classes you can attend. Another option is using a facilitator to help create a more effective culture. But it’s easy, and common, for those behavioral changes to vanish as soon as the training session is over or the facilitator leaves.  Leadership and Team Assignments

Team Building: Moments of Truth

So it’s pretty much up to you to build a motivated and committed project team. You can’t just talk about how everybody’s going to be highly motivated and aggressive problem-solvers, etc.  Instead, you do it in three critical instances of your interaction with the project team. This is the heart of team-building. These instances are moments of truth that do the following:

  • establish the culture of the team
  • communicate your expectations
  • teach the project team how you will work building

These team building moments of truth occur at particularly important times in your relationship with each team member.

Moment of Truth #1

The first occurs when you assign a task to a team member. You must assign each team member tasks that are within their skill set. If you don’t, you will set them up for failure and undermine any trust that existed between you and the team members. Your bad assignment techniques alert the team members to start protecting themselves from blame. Team Motivation

Moment of Truth #2

The second moment of truth occurs when you work with each team member to estimate the duration of their task assignments. If you don’t consider the team member’s honest estimate of the work required, they feel they’re being set up for failure. And that causes the team members to pad their estimates.

Moment of Truth #3

Finally, how you handle bad news about an assignment is critically important. You can’t lose your temper or punish the team member if a problem arises or a task completion date slips.  Your behavior must encourage team members to tell you about problems as early as possible. That gives you time to work together to fix them. Problems are inevitable. So team members shouldn’t be punished when they make you aware of them.   Effective Feedback

You can learn how to build a high-performance team in our online project management courses. You’ll work privately with an expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.

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How to Become A Great Project Manager

Organizations Need Super Project Managers

A project certification and the ability to answer multiple choice questions does not equip you to be a great project manager.  This ingredients for the great ones are complex brew of hard and soft skills. Importantly, being a technical guru is not on the list.  What you need to build an impressive track record of project successes on tough projects is:

  • a tool kit of project techniques and the knowledge to select the correct estimating, scheduling, risk management, tracking techniques for each particular project. One technique does not fit all projects.
  • Interpersonal skills that let you motivate your team and make them want to work on your projects.  Your praise is a potent reward for your team members because it is not empty words; they value it
  • Your communications skills and ability to read people and select the correct  communications style and content lets you influence and persuade team members and executives.
  • Your leadership style signals that you will stand up for your team members and gives executives confidence that you will not hide problems or blame others.
  • You management style causes you to work “out in front” of your team not march behind them. This lets you anticipate problems and apply solutions before the problem grows big.
  • You use the project technology to give decision-makers choices.  You always have options and quantified alternatives for getting around problems or taking advantage of opportunities.
Make yourself a super project manager.

Super project managers make themselves, they are not born. Training and experiential learning are critical to being able to think on your feet.  You also need to avoid the technology trap.  That’s where project manager think that their success comes from making good technical decisions.  That is the trap door to micromanaging your team by making all the decisions for them.

That takes so much time that you ignore the six characteristics listed above and wind up as a very ordinary project manager who ever achieves much.

Project Management Career – How to Join a Fast Growing Profession

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

A Project management career offers you a fast growing profession, world-wide demand and high incomes. A Project Management career give you mobility between companies because your skills are applicable in any company.

Project Managers who have the ability to deliver business results on time and within budget are needed in every company. Project managers are in demand  in both public and private sectors. Salaries are high with the average income of a certified project manager (PMP) topping $114,000 US.  I’ll summarize the steps in a project management career from first getting into the profession, to learning the basics, to your first certification and then up the ladder to multi-project and portfolio management. First let’s do a quick overview and then we’ll get into the details.

Project Management Career Progression

More than half of the project managers in the profession got into it because they were pushed into it. Executives noticed they were good performers so when a hot project came up, the executives dumped it in their laps. Learning on the job and on-the-fly, these people got through that first project and then decided they liked the work. They learn the right way later on.

Other people take a project management careers route by consciously deciding they want to enter the profession. They prepare themselves for their first job as a project manager by learning the basics of project management. Then they get an entry-level project manager certification for credibility. These steps help them get their first chance to manage a small project. How To Get into Project ManagementProject Management Career

No matter what route people take to start their project management career, they need to have training that teaches them the fundamentals of planning, scheduling, executing and tracking projects. Many people also get their first certification at this point because it’s a help in job hunting. That first certification is often the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® from the Project Management Institute (PMI)®. That certification requires no project management work experience. But it does require learning the processes, definitions and terms of the profession and passing a 3-hour exam. Pass the CAPM Exam

Functional/Industry Project Management Certifications

Another route early in a PM career is to earn a project management certification in a specialty area. This is a popular route for people already working in IT, Healthcare, Construction, Consulting or Business/Manufacturing. The certifications are:
Certified IT Project Manager
Certified Healthcare Project Manager
Certified Construction Project Manager
Certified Consulting Project Manager
Certified Business Project Manager
These certifications give you credibility in a project management specialty area and confirm your knowledge of the basic through advanced project management skills. Then you can “sell” yourself as a person who can manage small and medium-sized projects using the best practices, tools and techniques.

Project Management Professional (PMP)® Certification and Beyond

After you have several years of experience managing projects, you will be qualified to earn the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. This is an internationally recognized credential for experienced project managers and is highly regarded in all industries. You must be approved by PMI to take the PMP exam. PMI requires you to document 4,500 hours of project management work experience if you have a university degree and 7,500 hours of project management work experience if you do not have a university degree. They also require 35 hours of project management education. You need an exam preparation course to teach you all the best practices in project management. Then you must pass the exceedingly difficult 4-hour PMP exam. About 50% of the people who take the exam world-wide fail it.

The next step in a project management career is to earn a Program Manager Certification which prepares you up for positions managing multiple projects and larger, strategic programs. Program Management

Following that, your next move will be into senior management in a position like Chief Project Officer, CPO.

We offer individual, customized online courses for every step in your project management career.

Feedback That Changes Behavior


Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Feedback is not just sharing your evaluation of a team member’s work. An important part of a leader’s job is setting clear expectations and norms of behavior. These help the team members work together effectively and efficiently. You, as the leader, must set and enforce these expectations and norms of behavior. You reinforce positive behavior and change negative behavior by giving feedback to team members.    Leading Teams Main Page

Feedback in the form of constructive criticism is one way to change a team member’s bad behavior. It is best to do this in private but occasionally it can be in public. It 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 stop that behavior. Later on, it is harder for you to change or stop undesirable behaviors. That’s 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.

Let’s look at the right and wrong way to handle several feedback situations.

Feedback Situation #1: Team Member is Late For a Meeting

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 Feedback: Setting Standards

“By being late you have wasted all of our time. That is unprofessional and inconsiderate. 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 Feedback: Setting Standards

“When people are late for meetings I can respond two ways.  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 Feedback: Giving Criticism

“I 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 FeedbackGiving Criticism

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

There is no personal criticism in this feedback. There is no 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.

Feedback Situation #2: 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 project failure.  You quickly decide you have to do two things. First, you have to define the norm and the kind of behavior you want from the team.  Second, you need to effectively criticize the barbs being made by each side to make clear how their behavior deviates from what you want.

Ineffective Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“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 Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“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 differ from the behavior you want. Let’s look at the effective and ineffective ways to do that.

Ineffective Feedback: Past Grudges 

“You can dislike 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 FeedbackPast Grudges 

“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.”

Feedback Situation #3: Not Meeting Assignment Requirements

You cannot wait for team members to deliver bad assignments to define your expectations. You must do it upfront during the initial project planning phase. Leadership and Team Assignments

Ineffective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“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. They’ll do this even before they start work on their tasks.  There is a better way to define your expectations.

Effective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“The most important part of my job as project manager is to make sure you understand exactly what is expected of you. That’s why we are developing a work package that defines what each of you must do to succeed.  The work package describes the deliverable you are responsible for producing. That deliverable is defined with a metric and the standards you must meet. The work package also lists all the documentation that you must 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 your 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 the right ways to handle that situation.

Ineffective Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“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 Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“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 Feedback Summary

It’s easy to handle situations that involve good news, like finishing early and under budget. But it’s challenging to manage situations when 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 feedback 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 skills for giving effective feedback, you need to practice handling these situations the right way.

You can learn and practice these skills in our private, online Project Management Basics course. You will work individually with an expert PM on a realistic project case study. You have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences as you need.

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Project Management: How to Learn It

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Mentoring is the best way to learn project management. That’s where your company or organization lets you work with an experienced project manager on projects for a client or for one of your company managers. That’s how most of us at 4PM learned project management. We studied by working for an expert project manager on his/her projects.  Then the mentor let us manage small projects until we knew how to do it right. Unfortunately, the opportunity to learn from a mentor is very rare today. Most people who want to join the project management profession have to attend classes of 25 or more people taught by an academic.

Project Management Mentoring

At, however, we have created an online project management learning process that is based on the classic mentoring process.

  • Your instructor is an expert project manager with 10+ years of industry experience.
  • You work one-to-one with your instructor via video conferences
  • You work on realistic video project case studies
  • You practice dealing with the executives in live role playing sessions with your instructor
  • You practice answering executive’s questions in live role-playing sessions with your instructor
  • If you make a mistake, you try it again
  • You discuss every assignment with your instructor. You learn how to develop a project plan, create a project schedule using software and give status reports.

Project Management: Step #1

Our project management training prepares you for all of the challenges a project manager faces. They start when the boss calls you into his office and says something like, “We’ve got a big problem with the supply room. Our people are wasting dozens of hours every day because they can’t find the supplies they need to do their jobs. I want you to manage a project to fix the supply room problem.”

That’s when you may do a Google search on “project management “to find out what the heck to do. Well, here’s the answer. The first thing you do is pin the boss down about exactly what he means by “fix the supply room problem.” To do project management the right way, you need to have a definition of the project’s scope, the goal that defines the project’s success. The boss’ statement of “fix the supply room problem” is too vague. It will be a moving target and the goal will change each week. That’s because everybody can interpret it differently. So you must ask the boss questions about how he will measure if the project is a success. When he says something like, “People will be able to find the supplies they need in less than 2 minutes,” you have a clear scope. Project managers know how to ask the right questions to pin down the project scope.

Project Management: Step #2

The second thing you do is subdivide that scope into the major deliverables that will take you from where things are now to the end result the boss wants. You will usually have 4 to 7 major deliverables and each one must be measurable. In our example, a major deliverable could be “fewer than two stock-outs a week in the supply room.” That’s a measurable deliverable. It clearly defines success before you and your team start work.

Project Management: Step #3

Next you write your project charter. That can be a one page document that lists the following:

  • your understanding of the project’s goal
  • the resources you need to do the work on the major deliverables
  • the risks you see in the project.

When the boss signs off on the charter, you can start work creating the project plan.

Project Management: Step #4

Developing your project plan and schedule is the fourth step.  To do project managementthat, you work with your team members to estimate how much work each of the deliverables and tasks will require.  Then you lay out the sequence in which you will do them. Next you create the work breakdown structure (WBS). It is a hierarchy of the deliverables in your project. It’s easiest to use project software to develop your schedule and WBS. One of the best programs is Microsoft Project®, but it’s expensive. There are less expensive options like Gantter. That is a free project management scheduling software that you use with your browser. (I don’t think it’s going to be free forever.)

Project Management: Step #5

Then you get the sponsor to approve the project schedule. Then you and the team can start work on the tasks in your project plan.

Project Management: Step #6

Tracking actual progress on those tasks and comparing them to your approved schedule is the sixth step. You will give the sponsor status reports on how things are going and what problems you’re encountering. The sponsor usuallty tells you how often he/she wants these reports. You should also recommend solutions to the problems. However, your team members should give you weekly reports on the status of their tasks.

Project Management: Step #7

When the project is complete, the seventh step is to archive all the information about the project. That data will make doing the next project a lot easier.

That’s what project management is in a nutshell. You can learn all these skills in our project management basics courses. You practice using them as you work one-to-one with your mentoring instructor.


Team Assignments – Video

Watch this video about “how to” and “how not to” make team assignments. We show you what the initial meeting with a team member should deliver. Next we’ll discuss an example of how not to make a team member assignment. Finally, we’ll talk about the right way to make team assignments.

Your First Meeting with a New Team Member

The goal of this example project is to improve the quality of the applicants that Human Resources refers to line managers for job interviews. The project manager asks one of the team members to stop by his cubicle to discuss the project.  He is a bit uncertain about how to start the project. He asks the team member to interview all 65 of the company’s first level supervisors about the quality of the job applicants Human Resources is sending them for job interviews. Leading Teams Main Page

Team Assignment: Round 1

The team member returns to the project manager’s cubicle a week later and says, “I finished the last of the 64 interviews this morning. One of the supervisors is in the hospital so I couldn’t interview her.”

The PM says, “Good work. Tell me about the results of the interviews.”

The team member replies, “The hiring supervisors are very unhappy with the quality of the applicants referred by the Human Resources department.  70% of them rate the applicants as poor or unsatisfactory in terms of meeting the job specifications. Only 10% rate the applicants as excellent. We certainly have a problem to solve here.”

The project manager responds, “That’s not what I wanted. I want to know specifically what is wrong with the applicants the HR department sends them to interview. Please go get me the information I want.”

The team member nods at the project manager, turns and walks out, thinking to himself, “If you wanted data about what was wrong with the applicants, you should’ve told me that.”

Team Assignment: Round 2

With a marked lack of enthusiasm, the team member proceeds to again interview the 65 hiring supervisors (the last one was home from the hospital). The supervisors are unhappy with the team member because they feel they’ve contributed enough time to the project. Several remark to him, “You really should decide what you need before you waste people’s time.” The team member says nothing but nods agreement.

Seven days later the team member returns to the project manager’s cubicle. The project manager sternly asks, “Did you get the assignment right this time?”

The team member drops a 1 inch thick report on the project manager’s desk and says, “You asked me to find out what was wrong with the applicants and I have done that. Here are all the flaws of the 76 applicants that the HR department has sent to hiring supervisors in the past year. There are 1,576 things wrong with those applicants.”

The PM rises to his feet, snapping, “This is useless! We can’t correct all the problems on this enormous list. I need to know the top 10 things that are wrong with the applicants. I can’t believe you didn’t understand that when we last talked. You should be able to figure these things out for yourself. But if you can’t, you are responsible for asking questions until you’re clear about your assignment.”

Team Member Assignment

Team Assignment: Round 3

Without saying a word, the team member walks out and begins another round of interviews with the same supervisors. The team member’s lack of enthusiasm is now even worse than that of the supervisors. Also, the team member’s attention to detail is far below his usual work standard. As a result, the data gathered is incomplete and full of errors.

Team Assignment: Who Is At Fault?

Without question, the project manager did a miserable job defining this team member’s assignment. The team member followed the PM’s instructions correctly. In each of the cycles through this stupidity, the team member did what the project manager told him to do. And that is the heart of the problem. The project manager was telling the team member what to do but he didn’t tell the team member the result he wanted the assignment to deliver. If the PM had said, “Identify 10 categories of flaws with the job applicants that Human Resources sends to our supervisors,” the team member would have understood what the PM wanted him to produce. He would have delivered the desired result the first time. But the project manager did not specify the deliverable he wanted. What he told the team member to do was insufficient.

Too often, project managers don’t think about exactly what they want the product of the team member’s assignment to be. It’s much easier to just give the team member a “To Do” list and hope they get the assignment right. If they don’t, the project manager blames the team member rather than himself. When you, as the project manager don’t give your team members a clear and measurable deliverable for their assignment, you make the team members much less effective than they could be. When people have to guess about what a “good job” is, their work effort will be less focused than it could be. Additionally, if members of your project management team are uncertain about your expectations, they will naturally protect themselves by padding their estimates of the work’s cost and duration. They expect your unclear expectations to change and they want to avoid the blame when things turn out badly.

Team Assignment: The Right Way

Consistently successful project managers always define clear performance expectations for team member assignments for every deliverable. If you want to be successful, you need to set a measurable performance expectation for every assignment you give your team members. As work progresses on the team members’ deliverables, you can compare what is being produced to the original, measurable assignment. This allows you to spot and resolve problems early so your projects finish on time and within budget. And it lets your team members feel proud about doing a good job on their assignments. That builds team morale.

Learn how to make clear team member assignments in our online project management basics courses. You’ll work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.

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Team Motivation

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project team motivation is every bit as important as developing a clear plan & deliverables,creating a tight schedule and spotting problems early. Too many project managers assume that their team members are robots that will not be affected by their management behavior.  Thus, they think that how the PM assigns work, solves problems and makes estimates will have no impact on the team member’s attitude about the project. This view of team motivation is comfortable for leaders who believe their technical/creative knowledge make the team want to follow them. That is very far from the truth which is why the technical or creative guru types fail so often;  the think they can ignore team motivation.

The three leadership challenges above are what we call a project manager’s moments of truth with the project team. How the project manager treats the team members and how he values their input, and how he reacts to problems 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 goes 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, particularly if you blame team members for the problem rather than accept responsibility yourself.


Leading Teams: Six Techniques For Success

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The correct steps for successfully leading teams are challenging and so they’re often missed. Highly motivated, problem-solving teams are a key reason for every project success. These teams are committed to the goal and to completing their assignments on time and within budget. The proven techniques you’ll learn here include:

  • selecting the right team members
  • crafting the right-size assignment for each person
  • accurately estimating hours of work and duration
  • gaining team member commitment
  • receiving status reports
  • giving constructive feedback.

Leading Teams: Techniques for Three Sizes of Projects:

The techniques are different for each project, depending on the size and scope. Here are the project size definitions:

Tier 1: Small – they’re done within one department
Tier 2: Cross-functional – they affect multiple departments and cross organizational boundaries
Tier 3: Strategic  – they’re organization-wide programs (or projects for clients) with strategic impact.

Leading Teams Technique #1: Selecting Team Members

In the selection process, you’re trying to get the best people for your project team. But you’re also gathering information about their work habits and personality so you can craft the right assignment for them.
Tier 1: Small projects: You are usually familiar with the potential team members’ work performance and quality standards when you all work in the same department. You need to ask the boss for the people you want on your team during the project planning phase. That’s when the boss is focused on the project and can give you hints about the correct assignment for each of them.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: When you have to borrow your team members froLead Teamsm other departments or organizations, it is more difficult to make sure you get productive team members. If possible, you should interview potential team members to assess their work ethic, problem solving style and quality standards.
Tier 3: Strategic projects: On large projects for your organization or your clients, you may not be able to select the team members. If personal interviews are possible, you can gather information about potential team members’ experience and work standards. You will use that information to design the right assignments for each person.  If interviews aren’t possible, you will have to make an on-the-spot judgement about the right assignment for each team member. Leading Remote Project Teams

Leading Teams Technique #2: Designing Appropriate Assignments

You must design the assignments so they fit the capabilities and personality type of each team member. You want to give larger/longer assignments to people who have solid technical experience and are skilled problem solvers. This will give them a challenge. You should give shorter assignments to people who are experienced and/or less capable. This will let you easily track their progress and help them when it’s necessary.
Tier 1: Small projects: You usually have flexibility about the duration of assignments. For trainee-level team members or less capable people, you want assignments that are 1 to 3 days long. For the average team member, 5-day assignments are usually the right size. For experienced professionals, you should design assignments that are 2 weeks or longer to give them a challenge and independence.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: With people borrowed from other departments, it is often acceptable to talk with their boss about the right size assignment and the level of challenge you should give them.  If that’s not possible, then you will adjust the complexity and length of the assignment as they work on the task and you learn their capabilities.
Tier 3: Strategic projects: On larger projects with people who are accountable for major deliverables, you need to engage them in the design of their assignments. You must avoid micromanagement of these experienced people who are very capable.  On the other hand, you should give “rookies” assignments that are within their capabilities in terms of time and complexity. Team Micromanagement

Leading Teams Technique #3: Work Packages

You must clearly describe, in measurable terms, the deliverable(s) the team member should produce. And you must document their availability, as approved by their boss.
Tier 1: Small projects: This level of documentation is often skipped on small projects with three or four team members working on project within a department. But having a simple work pack for each team member avoids confusion about your expectations for their deliverable.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects & Tier 3: Strategic projects: For larger projects, you should document a work package for each assignment. It will make the assignment clear and document the deliverable you expect the borrowed person to produce. The work package also provides a standard format and information base for estimating the hours of work for the tasks and identifying their risks. It is best to document the work estimate and give a copy to borrowed team member’s superior. Team Building Techniques

Leading Teams Technique #4: Estimating Task Work and Duration

A project management best practice is to estimate the required hours of work so you can measure progress during the assignment. Team Types
All projects: Regardless of the size of the project, you should engage the team members in the process of estimating the amount of work their assignment will take. The work package is the basis for the estimating effort. You are estimating the amount of work (50 hours, for example), not the duration (Oct. 21 through Nov. 7, for example). You should always estimate the amount of work, such as 50 hours. You never estimate just the duration, such as Oct. 21 through Nov. 7. The amount of work required for the task provides you with the ability to more accurately track progress and spot problems. Their availability to do the work (halftime, 2 days a week, for example) is also documented. Team Building

You should also discuss the assignment’s potential risks with the team member and what can be done about them. This helps you avoid, eliminate or mitigate those risks. Finally, the work package should list the required deliverable, the approach to take and the inputs the team member requires to finish their task. Team Building video

Leading Teams Technique #5: Status Reporting

Team members should report status on their tasks every week. This allows you to find problems early so you have an opportunity to fix them before the task or project is late or over budget.
All Projects: Data can come to you by phone, e-mails, a form, template or on “sticky notes.” The important thing is that each week you get the hours of work competed (as of that date) and the estimated hours required to complete the task. No narrative is necessary. You should make status reporting easy so people will do it.  It is a best practice to then give all team members updated status data on the entire project. Effective Feedback

Leading Teams Technique #6: Giving Feedback

All projects: You must give feedback to team members on a timely basis. People want to be praised for a job well done. Remember that public praise is the most effective. People also need to be told when their performance does not meet your expectations. This should be done in private and include what they can do to improve. You must deliver feedback in a way that encourages people to tell you about problems early, when you and the team can define a solution or a “work around.” Constructive Feedback

It is extremely ineffective for you to get angry with team members who report bad news. This action (or reaction) dooms you to find out about problems when it’s too late to fix them. Dysfunctional Project Team video

Leading Teams Summary

Use these proven techniques to successfully lead project teams:

  • select the right team member for each task
  • assign the right size task for their capabilities
  • create a work package to define their deliverable
  • involve the team member in estimating the amount of work required and the duration of their task
  • receive weekly status reports from the team members. Team Member Personality Types video
  • give team members constructive feedback and praise

Matrix Teams

Project Team Culture

You can learn these techniques and enhance your skills for leading teams in our online project management courses. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You work privately with an expert project manager and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Constructive Feedback

Constructive Feedback That Changes Behavior

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Some time in every project manager’s and team leader’s career, they will have to give constructive feedback to a poor performing team member. Poor performance can include attitudes as well as assignments that do not meet your expectations regarding quality, timeliness or completeness. Constructive feedback is an effective tool for changing a poor performer’s behavior. It is also useful to give constructive feedback to team members whose assignments do meet all the requirements and your expectations. It can reward great performers and encourage them to keep up (or even improve) their good work.  Leading Teams Main Page

If your feedback is destructive, the team member will repeat their poor performance and your working relationship with that person will be adversely affected.  Even worse, your negative actions could cause other team members to perform less well. You need to know the best way to deal with poor performance. That requires following a proven procedure and using constructive feedback.

Constructive Feedback: A Typical Situation

Here is a typical situation you might face:

At the end of a long day, you received a phone call from a very influential stakeholder. She complained that her department did not receive the instructions that Pat (a member of your team) was supposed to give them last week.  She went on to explain that they need those instructions to be able to use the deliverable your team has produced.  As a result, the first phase of the implementation was going to be at least a week late, maybe more.  You wanted to ask why she waited a week to tell you about it. Instead, you apologized to the stakeholder, verified that you understood the problem, and hung up.   Leadership and Team Assignments

As you dialed Pat’s extension, one hand gripped the phone and you clenched the other into a fist. That idiot Pat’s screw up had cost you at least a week’s delay by not giving the stakeholder the instructions she needed.  This was the last straw with Pat.  All the other team members competed their tasks on time.  Pat was lazy and careless and didn’t give a rip about the project. Well, today Pat was going to learn a harsh lesson about doing the job correctly.

This project manager is going to have a conversation with a poor performing team member when they have built up a lot of anger and frustration. They’re ready to say things that will make the team member angry. This conversation will probably hurt their working relationship. Effective Feedback

The phone rang and rang until you realized Pat had gone home for the weekend.  

That was actually lucky.  The PM now has time to calm down and handle the situation the right way when they talk to Pat on Monday. Team Building

Constructive Feedback: Measuring Success 

Let’s first talk about what successful constructive feedback is. Is it making Pat feel guilty and embarrassed about letting the project team down? Is it making Pat promise to never do this again? Is it making Pat frightened of the punishments you may impose?

Success is none of those things. Success from giving constructive feedback is changing Pat’s behavior so he delivers the required instructions to the stakeholders.  Success is also changing Pat’s behavior so he finishes one task before moving on to the next.  Additionally, you’d like your relationship with Pat to be a good one. In a good relationship, Pat feels an obligation to meet your expectations.

With those constructive feedback measures of success in mind, let’s start over and do the advanced preparation necessary to correctly give constructive feedback. First, dealing with a poor performer is never the opportunity to vent your own frustration. You need to be calm and in control of your emotions.  You must design and execute your plan for the session, not ad lib it.

Constructive Feedback: Timing 

The need to control your anger often conflicts with the need to immediately address the poor performance.  In the situation above, it was lucky Pat had left the office because it allowed the PM time to cool down.  However, letting too much time pass before you deliver constructive feedback is bad because it reduces the impact of what you say.

You could wait two more days until Monday or try to meet with the team member over the weekend.  Your organization’s culture should affect your decision on how reasonable it is to ask for a weekend meeting.  A good middle ground is to send the employee an email today, asking for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Constructive Feedback: The Medium You Useconstructive feedback

Another consideration is what medium you will use for the constructive feedback discussion.  Ideally, you want a face-to-face meeting, in-person and private, with just the two of you.  In this day of cubicles and virtual teams, private meetings can be a luxury but you should try to make it happen.

Conducting the constructive feedback session in writing via a memo or email is very stiff and legalistic.  Lawyers like performance warnings to be documented.  But written communication can set the wrong tone for building the kind of relationship you want with the team member. A phone call is less formal but the downside is the difficulty in delivering your message with the correct body language and facial expressions. It’s also difficult for you to “read” the team member’s reactions when their words and tone of voice are the only feedback you get over the phone.  A video meeting over the internet improves that situation but you need to ensure that both sides of the conversation are private.

In the example situation with Pat, you might email him and ask for the meeting on Monday. Specify a place and time that will be private.  You might also add that you won’t be available for email discussions this weekend; you want to talk in-person on Monday.  Hopefully, that decreases the odds of an email exchange.

Constructive Feedback: Content and Sequence 

The next element of constructive feedback is planning the information you’ll deliver and the sequence in which you’ll deliver it.  It’s a mistake to assume you know the truth about what really happened, who was accountable and what behavior Pat exhibited.  Starting off with an incorrect version of what happened can bring the constructive process to a halt.

You have only the stakeholder’s view of the situation. You need to start with an open-minded inquiry into Pat’s side of the story.  You don’t want to assume that Pat made the error. There are many other possible explanations for what the stakeholder told you. So the first step in constructive feedback is to tell Pat about the stakeholder’s phone call. Then ask Pat what happened and get his side of the story.

This allows you to avoid accusing Pat of wrong-doing before you know if Pat actually did something wrong. Too many project managers start these sessions with words that assume the guilt of the team member. That makes the PM look judgmental, biased and unfair in the team member’s eyes. PMs often do that when they enter the meeting angry.  You should always start the conversation without prejudgment and let the team member tell their side of the story.

If Pat says, “I put the instructions on the stakeholder’s desk a week ago,” you can say something like, “I didn’t think you’d make that kind of mistake.” Then you can start a discussion about dealing with the one week delay in the implementation.

But if Pat agrees that he didn’t deliver the instructions to the stakeholder, you go on to step two in the constructive feedback process. That is verifying the team member’s accountability for the deliverable’s quality and completeness.

Constructive Feedback: Accountability Verification 

The next step in the constructive feedback information flow is to verify that Pat was responsible for creating and delivering the user instructions.  The purpose of this step is to compare Pat’s actual behavior to what it should have been.  So you ask him who was accountable for giving the instructions to the stakeholder.

If Pat agrees that the instructions were his accountability, you can talk about the importance of closing out tasks completely. And you can discuss the damage that failure to do so caused in this specific situation.  This part of the discussion is focused on Pat’s actual behavior versus his accountability.  Don’t praise other team members who close out tasks completely.  The only reference outside of this current situation might be to mention how well Pat did on the last task he closed out correctly.

Why should you follow all these steps?  If you are going to change the behavior, Pat needs to believe that the criticism was earned and fair and that his behavior was wrong.  That will bring about a change in his behavior and build your working relationship.

Constructive Feedback: Reinforcement 

Dealing with Pat’s performance is not over.  You need to complement Pat when he correctly closes out his next task. That will complete the constructive feedback cycle.

Constructive Feedback: Summary

Constructive feedback on a team member’s poor performance can yield big benefits for the project manager and team member. The project manager must control their anger and the impulse to accuse or punish. Constructive feedback includes learning the facts, verifying the team member’s accountability and reinforcing their improved behavior.

You can practice using these techniques in our private, online courses that include live simulations. You will practice dealing with poor performing team members in private meetings with your instructor who plays the role of the team member. You will learn how to successfully plan and deliver constructive feedback and “think on your feet”during these live online meetings.

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