Project Rescue Tools

Rescues of failing projects are a regular part of the project manager’s job. The most important early decision you make is what project rescue tools to use. You must recognize up front, that a normal “PMBOK” (Project Management Body of Knowledge) tool set won’t work.  It involves too much paper, too many meetings and too little action. So here is a set of project rescue tools that will let you gain control of the disaster and fix it. 

Project Rescue Tools: Identify Failure Causes

Let’s say you are assigned to rescue the failing XQ-17 rollout project. It’s a critical new product for your company.  The promised completion date is looming close and the project exceeded the budget months age. The team is shuffling around like prisoners on death row. The only glimmer in their eyes is when the former PM leaves to begin job hunting. They envy him because no one will be yelling at him anymore.  

The rapidly approaching due date and budget overrun have the big bosses frantic. You definitely need to improve those issues but they’re not what you need to work on first. Those are symptoms.  You need to get rid of the causes of the failure. They are almost always the following:

  1. The project scope is loosy-goosy and new deliverables have crept in.  You need to tighten up the scope so there is no more scope creep . During that process, you may be able to find some unnecessary deliverables to delete.   Scope Creep
  2. Problems surprised the prior PM because he didn’t have an early warning system.  You need to stop bad surprises by tracking progress and issues up front. You can’t just look at last week’s work. Team members must give you weekly progress reports that include the percent complete and estimates to complete their tasks.  Weekly Status Report
  3. The executives did not consider trade-offs between the 4-corners of the project (Scope, Cost, Duration and Risk) and their strategic issues of change. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You need to spend time developing and explaining some strategic choices for them. These choices may let you deliver what they now want, not the original scope. Project Trade-offs

Project Rescue Tools: Estimate to CompleteSaving a failing project

The team members’ weekly estimates to complete (ETC) are invaluable. They let you continuously monitor your project’s schedule and cost. Estimates to complete are an essential part of all effective rescues. They are a key to turning your project around and managing expectations of the team and executives. ETC is simple. Each of your team members turns in a status report with the actual hours they worked on all their tasks during the past 7 days.  They also give you an estimate of how many hours of work they think they have left on each task. You will use that data in your project schedule and give yourself early warning on tasks that are slipping. It lets you address these problems while they are small and more easily solved.

As importantly, ETC gives successes to your team members who are probably feeling unenthusiastic about the project. Hitting their ETCs is a opportunity for praise from you.  ETC can help the work attitudes of your team. That’s what you need; people hitting their assignment due dates and receiving recognition of a job well done. 

Project Rescue Tools: Tighten Project Scope

You need scope and deliverables that are defined by the metrics the sponsor(s) will use to judge their acceptability.  That means you need to convert the original scope and deliverables to measured achievements.  For example, “Faster system response time” becomes “Customer Service Reps can access customers’ 12 month history in 9 seconds 90% of the time.”  That is understandable and measurable; not wishy-washy like the prior deliverable.  Tightening the deliverables’ definitions always does the following:

1. It identifies deliverables that are not needed 

2. It identifies deliverable expenses that can be reduced with a savings of  time and money.

Project Rescue Tools: Develop Trade-offs

Quantifying the project scope and developing metrics for all deliverables lets you offer the executives tradeoffs between the “4-corners” of the project scope, cost, duration and risk.  Here’s an example, you might offer a trade-off on the response time metric of “access customers’ 12 month history in 9 seconds.”  From your detailed work with the team, you might find that changing the response time from 9 seconds to 12 seconds, might give you software development savings of 8 days in duration and $12,000 in hardware expenses.  That’s the trade-off you show the executives for them to make a decision. 

Project Rescue Tools: Summary

These tools get the project rescue effort started. They also begin the executives’ training on the correct way to sponsor projects.

Project Plan Is Missing

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The corporate executive flies you across the country to take over a project he describes to you as “troubled” during a phone call.  You arrive at the facility where the whole team is waiting for you in the boardroom.  The regional VP, a 300-pound man, gives you a bear hug and turns to the team and says, “This PM is the winner who’s going to lead us to the finish line by the end of October or die trying.”

You scan the group and see team members smirking and averting their eyes from your glance. You turn back and see the VP picking up his garment bag and briefcase saying, “Well, I’m off to tour our Southeast Asia offices. See you at Thanksgiving”

You reach for his elbow saying, “But we need to discuss the project scope and the project plan.”

The VP jerks his elbow out of your grip and bolts out the door saying, “The paperwork’s all done; look at those notebooks.”  The VP points behind you. You turn around and  see seven 4 inch thick notebooks on the table.

As you walk toward the table, a team member says, “You won’t find a project scope or a plan or a schedule in those books.  We don’t have any type of plan.”

You whirl around and race for the door.  The VP is gone and the corridor is empty with no sign of him.

A team member with a long ponytail and beard says, “Those books don’t have anything but our weekly To Do lists.  We each get a new list every Sunday night.”

You face the 19 team members in the room and say, “Without a plan, we will fail.”

The team members nod at you and each other.  Ponytail says, “Ohhh, we know that.” The team members all shake their heads in agreement.

You say, “We need to begin with the project scope.  Who started this project? Was it the VP we just saw running down the hall?

Ponytail says, “Nope. He just takes orders; he doesn’t give them. The Corporate Executives read the riot act to all the execs about our customer service. The Consumer Reports magazine kicked our butt and said we had the worst service in the industry. The guy you just met, we call him The Hippo, was the last VP standing when the music stopped. So he’s had the ‘World Class Customer Service – WCCS’ project dumped in his lap.  This year’s evaluation starts on November 1.”

You say, “So we have the project’s name. Now what do we have to do to reach the WCCS goal?”

Ponytail says,”Basically everything – systems, procedures, training, remodeling offices, hiring people, etc.   Every executive wants something they say they need for WCCS.  So The Hippo tells us, “Just add it and get it done by October 31.”

You say, “Is there any chance we’ll achieve WCCS by October 31?”

The team members all think that’s hilarious.  One yells, “October of what year?” Another shouts, “I hope my job hunting is done by then.”

The laughing abruptly stops when you say, “I’ll go see the Executive VP and get the scope defined by him.”

Ponytail says, “That’s suicide,man!  She thinks her instructions were clear but all she said was ‘WCCS  by October 31′.”

You answer, “No one gets fired for asking questions.”

“Oh yes they do. It happens here all the time,” replies a woman wearing thick glasses.

You walk out the door and look up the EVP’s office in the directory by the elevator. It is located on the top floor with a cluster of assistants’ offices. You press the elevator button and wonder if this will be your last day of employment.

The elevator doors open on an elegant oak paneled reception area that is empty except for a stylishly dressed, elderly lady at the far end of the room. She looks up at you with surprise.

You walk across the thick maroon carpet and stop in front of the lady whose name plate says, Vivianne Lane.

You introduce yourself saying,  “Hello Ms. Lane.  I’m the new project manager they flew in from the west coast for the WCCS project. I need to see the EVP so I can get started on this important project. ”

“Oh my yes,” Ms. Lane says. “It’s a very important project.”

“Then I can’t waste any time getting to work.  Is the EVP in? May I see her?”

Ms. Lane says, “It’s best not to disturb her.”

“Oh I have to, maam. Which office is hers?”

Ms. Lane raises her eyebrows and quivers with fear. She slowly raises her arm and points to the door on the right.

You walk to the door and Ms. Lane scurries for the ladies room.

You knock on the door and listen.  There’s no sound.  You grab the bronze doorknob and slowly open the door.  You hear a click followed by, “Oh damn.”

The EVP  had just missed a ten foot putt across the plush green carpet. The white ball was wide left by 5 inches. From your summers as a caddy, you know what the problem is.

You say, “Your feet were pointed to the left so the ball went that way.”

A 6 foot tall woman in her 40’s with silvery white hair is in her stocking feet; her 5″ heels are by her desk.

Looking down at her feet she says, “You’re right. Did my VPs hire a golf pro?”

“No maam, I’m the project manager for WCCS.”

Don’t call me maam. I’m not your mother or an old lady.  Call me EVeep.  I might not have that title by the end of October so I want to enjoy it for a while.”

You glance at her desk top and see a worn issue of Consumer Reports  magazine. You think for a moment and ask, “How good does the rating from Consumer Reports have to be for you to keep your EVP tile?”

“Aren’t you the quick one,” she says.  “We need to be in the top 10 this time around and in the top 3 by next year.”

You ask “Is that last year’s Consumer Reports issue with the rankings?”

She retorts, “What do you think I’d have on my desk, Seventeen magazine?”

You say, “May I borrow the copy so I can see how the ratings work? Then I’ll be back tomorrow with a high level project plan.”

“You’re going to aim the project at the performance factors Consumer Reports uses?” she asks.

“Would you rather I used Seventeen ratings?” you respond.

The EVP laughs as she hands you the magazine, “Pull this off and you’ll get the gold ring. Here’s my cell phone number. Put it on your speed dial.”

You start for the door and then turn back and say,”I am going to cut a ton of crap out of this project because I hear the VPs have added everything from their wish lists. Will you support me with them?”

She says with a smirk, “Just tell them I told you to clean out the crap and they can come see me if they don’t like it.”

You smile, open the office door and head for the elevator. You nod a thank you to Ms. Lane as you pass her desk.  You read the article on the way down.

As you walk into the boardroom, the team members all turn and look at you like you’ve been carried back by a tornado.

You smile at them and said, “We have a great project sponsor and her full support.  We now have a project scope which is: Being in the top ten of the Consumer Report rankings this next year and in the top three the year after. What we are going to do today, and into the night if necessary, is assess the five factors the magazine uses in their ranking. Then we’ll decide what deliverables we need to achieve to improve our rating. Nothing else will be in our project plan.”

Ponytail says, “The VPs will go ballistic about those cuts.”

You say “My money in on the EVP standing her ground. I think she will eat their lunch if they object.  Let’s get to work  and break down our scope into its component deliverables. We’ll start with a deliverable of ‘97% of our customers get correct information when they call Customer Service.’ Where do we stand now?”

There’s silence and then ponytail says, “We’re at 65% now.”

“How do we get to 97%?” you ask.

The woman with thick glasses speaks up, “We need more training. But we don’t have enough people to pull them off the phones to attend classes.  There’s a Human Resources hiring freeze so we can’t hire more people.  That’s also killing us on the hold time standard.  We haven’t got enough bodies in Customer Service.”

Without responding to her, you grab your cell phone, hit two speed dial keys and put it on speaker.  “Hello EVeep. The project manager here. We’re going to need more bodies in Customer Service for quality training and to reduce hold time. Can you help us get around HR’s hiring freeze?”

You all hear a dial tone and the team looks embarrassed.  Then you say, “Have faith.  How many new Phone Reps do we need?”

Ponytail says “37 new folks. We’ll have training on customer service policies for them and our current staff of 102.  We’ve already designed the course.”

You nod and your cell phone rings. You put it on speaker and listen,”This is Gladys Knight, Human Resources VP. Against my better judgement, the hiring freeze for Customer Service is lifted. What do you need from us?”

You give the team a big grin and say, “37 new reps and 5 days of training for 139 reps starting next week.  We have the course materials ready.”

“Will do,” the Human Resources VP says and hangs up.

You face the team with a big thumbs up.”Now let’s break down the other high-level deliverables for achieving our scope of: ‘A top ten Consumer Reports ranking this next year and in the top three by the following year.’ When we do that, we will have our project plan.”

Project Management Certification Options

Here the project management Certification options for beginners, experienced pros and program managers

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

There are a wide range of project management certification options to propel your  project manager career. They can lead you to the upper levels of project, program and portfolio management.

If you have some experience and have earned your first project management certification, it’s easier to get a job in project management. Your first certification could be in a specific industry or in a functional specialty. Those project management certification programs give you basic skills for small projects. Then you can build on them by adding advanced techniques in estimating, risk management, planning with executives, tracking and status reporting. The better programs also give you training and practice in making effective presentations, leading meetings and communicating clearly with stakeholders and your team members. The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers two certifications.  The PMP  (Project Management  Professional) is for experienced PMs. Our PMP Exam Prep course prepares you to pass that exam.  The CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management) is for people who are new to project management. offers project management certifications in the following specialties:
IT Project Management Certification In addition to basic and advanced project management tools and techniques, this program gives you the skills to use different systems development methodologies, like Agile and Waterfall, and how to elect the correct one for each project. They also teach you how to manage the users’ expectations and your team members’ performance.

Construction Project Management Certification In addition to the basic and advanced project management tools and skills, this program places special emphasis on accurate estimating, building customer/owner relationships and the intricacies of dealing with subcontractorsProject Manager Certification on your project. You learn how to manage risks and change orders which are critical elements in construction project profitability.

Healthcare Project Management Certification In addition to the basic and advanced techniques and tools, this program gives you the tools to effectively deal with the unique organizational issues in the healthcare environment. You learn how to work with both the administrative departments and the medical staff of a healthcare institution. You will be able to build effective teams across those functional lines.

Business Project Management Certification In addition to the basic and advanced project management tools, this program teaches you how to integrate people from different functional areas into a high-performing project team. You learn how to build project plans and effective teams that include the efforts of information systems, marketing, sales and operations. Each of these areas has a unique perspective on projects.

Client/Consulting Project Management Certification This certification teaches you basic and advanced project management techniques as well as how to “sell” engagements to clients, manage their expectations and finish projects on time. Delivering those results earns a profit for your firm and creates a satisfied customer. You learn how to handle change orders profitably and develop a mutually beneficial relationship clients.

These certifications are valuable credibility-builders within your organization and help you stand out from the crowd when seeking a new project manager position.

Managing Remote Teams for Projects

Over the last 10 years, technology has allowed team members to work at home in great numbers. That is in addition to the contractors and stakeholders from other locations. The technology for remote team members forces changes to the project manager’s leadership techniques.  The most frequent mistake we see (and we made it ourselves at first), is to think that technology will let you manage the team the same way you did when they were all in the same office.  Leading Teams Main Page

The truth is that your leadership style still has to accomplish 4 things with all your team members, no matter where they work. You must:

  1. Give them clear performance expectations and explain how you will measure their work.
  2. Gain their commitment to the team’s goal and understanding of how their assignment fits in.
  3. Ensure that they understand the status of the project and their assignment(s) each weekly.
  4. Practice giving praise publicly. That’s your most valued reward.
Live Video Conferences

PMs can use live video conferences to make their leadership effective for remote team members.  When you use the video conference as a substitute for face-to-face meetings,  you need to avoid falling into the video conference Tar Pit. Let me explain what I mean.

Video Conference Tar Pit

In the Tar Pit, managers start the video conference off by logging into the meeting, saying hello and then turning down the sound.  They proceed to catch up on emails and phone calls while occasionally glancing at the screen and listening to the muttering voices.  The Tar Pit spreads like the flu when these managers mistakenly call their subordinates who are in the same video conference. Oops! People quickly realize that faking their attendance and attention is the “cool” thing to do.  Soon no one is listening.

The project manager realizes that the absence of any questions from the attendees is a symptom of the Tar Pit.   So they start asking questions of random people or threatening the group with a test.  That works for a while until an attendee answers the question with, “I can’t hear you; there’s too much static” or “Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”  The excuses and their entertainment value skyrocket until the PM stops asking questions. Here’s how you can avoid the Tar Pit:

  1. Limit the size of your video conferences to 1-4 people.
  2. Limit the video conference time to 30 minutes.
  3. Use the conferencing software feature to display everyone’s image, not just yours.
  4.  Keep the conversation moving. Schedule 1-on-1 sessions to discuss details that aren’t of interest to the entire group.
  5. Keep the meeting moving by asking people’s opinions.

You should also leave the video conference open to other team members. You can decide whether to admit them based on the topic being discussed. That gives the meeting a social boost which people working at home need.

Collaboration between remote team members

You need to give your team members tools to work with each other.  This collaboration is important for both efficiency and social bonding.  It’s where remote workers are made to feel they’re part of the team.

Most of the “remote team” software products provide several communication tools that can function between team members, working from home, in different offices, or another country.  In addition to video conferencing, they include: texting, email, Twitter, Facebook, live streaming of meetings and much more. These tools have enabled remote team members to collaborate effectively. But some programs have a few bad features. Among the worst are the “drop in” communication packages. They let you or a team member connect directly with another team member’s PC.  That team member is rudely interrupted (and possibly frightened) when someone’s face appears in a window on their screen.   Working remotely, however, can also create some challenges when working as a team.

Successfully managing remote teams requires keeping up with technology and producing the same, if not better, results than if you were working with your team locally.  Here are five suggestions for effectively managing your remote teams.

  1. Conduct the Remote Project Teams Kick-Off as You Would for Local Projects
    Managing a project remotely may not allow for a face-to-face initial kick-off meeting, but the same principles should apply during initiation, determining scope, etc.  Brainstorming sessions, although potentially easier in person, can still be conducted thoroughly via video conference.  This is opportunity to identify as many questions, concerns, ideas, timelines, constraints, etc., as possible to help ensure clarity toward the end goal throughout the project.
    Other Suggestions:  Kick-off with a clear agenda that includes project purpose, goals, and success factors. Ensure team member roles are established and explained and include appropriate people to positively support the project.
  2. If in Your Control, Form Strong Remote Project Teams
    If you have the opportunity to build your own remote project team, seek motivated, positive, self-sufficient and of course, knowledgeable people.  A self-sufficient and motivated team member will help offset the potential communication challenges a remote environment offers like time zone differences, meeting availability, or lack of face-to-face meetings.  An opportunity to work with the most qualified candidates increases with the pool of employees from across the country or even globe. This is a big advantage of managing a remote team.
    Other Suggestions:  Invest time in your project team.  Get to know your team members. You can use LinkedIn to learn something about them.  Also, it’s best to speak with your team members about more complicated items rather than using email.
  3. Conduct Regularly Scheduled Meetings (as needed – daily, weekly, etc.)
    Communication is key, especially when distance of any length exists among your team.  Project team members can easily get distracted and focus more on other tasks or projects when “out of sight, out of mind.”  Detailed status reports containing issues, items for attention, etc. should continue to be sent before each meeting and used as an agenda for the meeting. This helps keep meetings at an appropriate length. I have never heard anyone complain about a meeting being too short.  Please be mindful of time zone differences (if needed) to accommodate the entire team as much as possible.
    Other Suggestions:  Gain a reputation for being reliable and dependable.  These characteristics become even more important when working in a remote environment.  Respond to inquiries and issues in a timely manner.  This behavior typically is replicated and benefits the entire project.
  4. Set Expectations Throughout the Entire Project Lifecycle
    Similar to an exercise program, consistency is crucial.  In addition to regularly scheduled meetings, project statuses and updates should be communicated frequently. The team must be aware of exactly where the project is on the overall timeline, which tasks remain open, and the status of each task for each team member.  Consistent and appropriate communication should occur at both the individual and team level.
    Other Suggestions:  Customize for individual expectations.  Work with each member individually, as needed, to ensure expectations are clear.  While some members may prefer and even excel in multi-tasking various responsibilities, other members may be more effective with a shorter list of tasks.
  5. Recognize Team Members for Positive Performance
    Most people enjoy some type of positive recognition.  Recognition can be tailored to each individual team member depending on their preference.  For example, a team member might finish their task early, which could correlate to an earlier project finish time.  That person might appreciate even more responsibility and assisting with another task. Another person might appreciate getting the “extra time” to work on other projects. In addition, an email to their immediate superior recognizing their good work is always appreciated.
    Other Suggestions:  During each (weekly) meeting, do a “shout out” in praise of at least one team member and document the recognition  of their achievement in the meeting minutes.

Managing a unique project from start to finish, whether working with a local or remote project team, will always present challenges.  Working with a motivated team through appropriate and timely communication channels can help overcome at least some of these challenges.

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Risk Management Plan: Selling It To Executives

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Regardless of its size,  you always have to sell the benefits of the risk management plan to the sponsor and stakeholders. But they’ll often be hostile.  That’s because they aren’t convinced that spending money on risk management improves the odds of finishing on time and within budget.  They may see risk management as a waste of time and money. Risk Management Main Page

You should never start your risk management presentation by boring your audience with the list of 63 negative risks that could adversely affect the project and 27 positive risks that could let you finish earlier and spend less money. You also shouldn’t present the results of your qualitative or quantitative risk analysis; no matter how proud you are of them.  That type of presentation will only convince your audience that you have wasted both time and money.

Risk Management Plan Presentation: How To Do It

In the first 60 seconds of your presentation, you should acquaint your audience with one or two significant risks and the impact those risks could have on the project. Let’s take a simple project and see how you might start the presentation.

“Good afternoon. I’m here to talk with you about our supply room project. The goal is to reduce the number of complaints from our employees. Last year, we averaged 53 complaints per month. Our goal is to reduce it to less than 3 per month. The major deliverables that will lead to achieving that goal are:

First, that 95% of the time employees can find the supplies they need in less than 60 seconds.

And second, that fewer than 3 items each month are out of stock.risk management plan presentation

We see two problems that could make it difficult or impossible for us to deliver that goal. The first problem is that the people who stock the supply room will not use the new, more efficient design which we will produce during the course of the project. We need an incentive so they don’t return to their old habits and recreate the same mess we have today. To avoid that problem, we would like to add a performance criteria to their job descriptions and annual performance reviews. It will require people to maintain the supply room design by restocking supplies in the specified locations.

The second problem is that employees will not know where to look for the supplies they need. If that happens, the complaints about the new design may be higher than the current complaint rate. To avoid that problem, our design will place the most frequently needed supplies (those that account for 80% of the withdrawals) near the supply room entry. We will also print and distribute a supply room crib sheet and map to all employees. We will also have a large-scale copy of the crib sheet and map on the supply room door.

If you approve this risk management plan, I believe we can completely avoid both problems.”

Taking this simple and direct approach to presenting your risk management plan is almost always more successful than a presentation that drowns your audience in data or complex statistics. Instead of all the numbers, you discuss the problems, the consequences and your remedy. Plus you do it in just a few minutes.

If you want to enhance your presentation skills, consider our online Presentation and Negotiation Skills course.  You work individually with your instructor at your pace. They’ll coach you with techniques for improving the content and media of your presentations as well as your speech and body language.

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Project Tradeoffs: 4-Corners of a Project

Project trade-offs are the best technique to use when you’re dealing with executives who want to make changes to the plan. Knowledgeable project executives understand the concept of balances or trade-offs when they want to add or delete something.  They know that if they ask you to squeeze the duration by one month it will affect the scope, cost or risk. Those are the 4-corners of a project.

Unfortunately, some executives think they can shorten the duration of the project by a month without impacting the other three corners. In this project fantasyland, they believe they can increase the scope and the deliverables without affecting the duration (schedule), cost or risk. They think any changes they want to make to the project are “free.”

Project managers who allow project executives to live in this fantasy world are doomed to repeated project failures. Once you give the executive free changes to the project, he will keep requesting (or demanding) more changes.

Using the 4-Corners

Skilled project managers always talk to executives about trade-offs between the project’s 4-corners: scope, duration, cost and risk. They make the point that there are no “free lunch” changes. Every change to the project impacts the other corners and requires a trade-off. But tactically, the PMs never say “no” to a change. That never gets them anywhere. What they say is, “Yes, I can change the schedule to finish two weeks earlier. But that will increase the project cost by $14,000 to pay for overtime and hiring several consultants. Do you want to do that, sir? Do you want to trade off a two week earlier finish for a $14,000 increase in the budget?”

Project managers should talk trade-offs with executives during the initial planning and in the approval presentation. They should continue this discussion every week when change requests are submitted and as variances appear.

They also always have the data on the 4-corners and always carry an iPad or small PC so they can generate tradeoff data in a minute or two from their MS Project schedule. You need to quantify the scope, budget, rick and duration.

We teach this tradeoff technique in all our beginner and more advanced approach in our advanced classes.  You can also read more on quantifying the 4-corners in our articles of risk management, scope definition, budgeting and scheduling.




Team Leader: How To Improve Team Performance

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

The first step in improving team performance is reviewing the team leader’s performance.  Project managers are team leaders who are often unaware of how their own performance affects the team’s performance and attitudes. We’ll start by looking at six ways project managers try to improve team performance that do NOT work. And we’ll analyze why they negatively impact the team. Then we’ll discuss four positive team leader techniques for improving team performance. Leading Teams Main Page

Poor Team Leader Technique #1: “Variances Are a Personal Betrayal”

Let’s look at some examples. It’s a few weeks into a project and Jill, a project team member, reports that her task is going to slip four days past the due date. She explains that all the managers who need to sign off on the design are at an out-of-town offsite meeting. She has no way to contact them until they return. The project manager slumps down head in hands, and moans, “How can you do this to me? I thought we were friends.  You’re gonna get me in big trouble with the VP.  You were the one team member I thought would never do this kind of thing to me.”

Assessment: This ineffective technique makes the team member feel guilty and it doesn’t solve the problem.

Poor Team Leader Technique #2: “You’re The Problem, Not The Assignment”

Bill is a subject matter guru who sends an email to the PM and the team stating, “Unexpected technical difficulties may cause the completion of my task to slide a week or more.” That afternoon the PM spots Bill in the hall, calls to him and says, “What the heck’s the matter with you?  Do you think you can re-set the completion date without talking to me? I’m going to look into these “unexpected technical difficulties.”

Assessment: You should never give negative feedback in public.  And never suggest “something is wrong with a team member.  You should criticize specific behavior, not the individual; and always do it in private.

Poor Team Leader Technique #3: “Every Slippage is a Catastrophe”

One of the trainees, Miles, comes to the PM’s cubicle and says, “I’m going to finish later than I planned by one day; but just one day. My boss gave me a high priority assignment that will interrupt my project work.” The PM glares at the trainee and says, “Don’t give me this ‘just one day late’ stuff.  You have to fix it so you don’t have this kind of disaster.  This is what makes projects fail!”

Assessment: You should not blame a team member for being pulled off your project by their department manager. That is not their fault. It is your job, not theirs, to solve the work priority issue with their boss. Also, one day late is not a catastrophe.

Poor Team Leader Technique #4: “You Have to Fix This Today”

Mary calls to report an 8-day slippage on her task due to the new technical requirements she just received.  The PM says, “Well that means your overtime starts tonight. And I’ll need your entire team in here all weekend.”

Assessment: This slippage was probably beyond the team member’s control.  Trying to recapture the lost time, starting today, is often the least effective solution.  There are times when you have to ask for extra hours. But “all hands on overtime” is foolish and it punishes the whole team for something that is not their fault. This does more harm than good.

Poor Team Leader Technique #5: “I Have to Watch You Closely From Now On”

Jack tells the PM he’s figured out a way to cut the five-day variance he reported last week to only two days.  The PM says, “Just make up your mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 days or 2 days. You shouldn’t have ANY variances. I’m going to have to watch you a lot more closely from now on.”

Assessment: This is a great technique for discouraging team members from creative problem solving.

Poor Team Leader Technique #6: “Guilt, The Great Motivator”

Jean reports a two-week variance. The PM reacts by saying, “You’ve let every member of this team down. We were all counting on you to come through and you didn’t. You have no idea how badly this will affect the whole project and many people’s careers.”

Assessment:  An experienced team member will shrug off this foolish reaction; and they should.  But a new employee may think you are speaking the truth and become very upset and feel guilty.

Your Poor Team Leader Behavior is Always Onstage

Handling performance problems with even one team member puts you, the team leader, on stage in front of the entire team. You should assume the team member who’s going to finish late will talk to others about your reaction. And don’t think their peers will treat them like an outcast because they won’t.  Team members usually assume their peer merely had some bad luck on their assignment. They judge your reaction when they hear about it (and they always do) based on your bad news behavior. They won’t share or support your opinion that the team member’s work was bad or that they’re a “bad person.” When you treat the team member reporting a variance as if they’ve spread the plague, you will get an adverse reaction from the entire team. You can count on the fact that your project team members regularly talk to each other about your behavior. And they will tell everyone how badly you react to a negative situation.

Effective Team Leader Performanceteam leader

The first effective team leader guideline is to handle each performance problem as if your words and actions will be broadcast on Twitter, Facebook and CNN. You can also be sure that this broadcast of your behavior will focus on the juiciest aspects of the story, not a balance of good and bad. Because team members will broadcast your handling of performance problems, you should have a script for each situation. This role is called “Bad News Behavior.” Each “appearance” always has four acts.

You’re probably asking, “Why must I play a role?” “Why can’t I just be myself?”

The answer is that your natural tendency is to express your emotions. These include disappointment, worry and even anger when a slippage or overrun occurs. Remember that dealing with a project team member’s overrun is not an opportunity for you to get your frustration “off your chest.” You must focus on engaging that team member in finding and implementing the best way to solve the problem. All the negative responses we saw above came from project managers without a script for an effective “Bad News Behavior” role. They were disastrous attempts to improve team performance. Here are the fours acts that define your role.

Effective Team Leader Technique #1: Use Data to Judge the Severity of the Problem

The first act for the “Bad News Behavior” role is to determine the severity of the problem. To do this, you must have a proper project plan, a dynamic model of all the tasks, predecessor relationships (the sequence and dependency of tasks) and work/duration estimates. With this information, you can quickly assess the severity of the problem. The actions you take should be based on sound analysis and judgment. If you react to every problem as if it was a catastrophe, you will quickly lose your ability to engage your team in problem-solving when a serious matter arises.

The data in your plan and schedule will tell you if you are dealing with a task that is not on the critical path and if it has enough slack to cover the variance without affecting the project completion date. You’ll handle that problem very differently from a variance on a critical path task. That’s where every day of delay affects the entire project’s completion date. The data lets you live with some variances and focus your attention on the significant problems. This assessment makes your “Bad News Behavior” reaction appropriate for the problem.

Effective Team Leader Technique #2: Determine the Extent of its “Ripple Effect”

You will also use the project schedule to analyze the “ripple effect” of a variance on the tasks that follow the slipped task. The severity of a variance may increase or decrease based on whether resources are available on the tasks that follow the slipped task. You may be able to assign some of those available resources to work on the task with the variance. This “ripple effect” analysis also sets up your next step.

Effective Team Leader Technique #3: Pick the Best “Action Point” for Recovery

There is a natural tendency to think that you need to solve any variance on the task where it occurred. Of course recovery to complete that problem task on time and within budget is nice. But often adding resources or taking other corrective action on the problem task is not the best way to recover. It’s not easy to get additional people to work on the problem task. And when you do, you must quickly bring them up to speed. The net result may be that the problem task is further behind than if you left the existing people alone to work on it. Sometimes it’s easier and more effective to take action on a later task. That will give you more time to organize the recovery and find resources to regain the lost time.

Effective Team Leader Technique #4: Discuss the Work Package With the Team Member

Your response to improving team performance should be finding the solution, not assigning blame to the team member. So you start the discussion with the team member by talking about the solution and getting their thoughts on a solution the you two will jointly implement. You need to review the work package that was the basis for the team member’s original work estimate and approach to the task. Take a look at the team member’s availability and the risk factors included in the estimate. By using the original work package as the basis for discussing the problem, you focus attention on your previous discussions. The flaws are in that document, not the team member. The big advantage of this last step is that it focuses attention on the work, the assumptions and the estimates, not the personal characteristics of the team member.

Now you are ready to talk about solutions to the problem and improving team performance.

Effective Team Leader Techniques Summary

These four team leader techniques will help you improve your team’s performance and avoid a “shoot from the hip” emotional reaction that leads to ineffective problem-solving behavior.

To learn more about using proven team leader techniques, building dynamic project plans, using effective estimating techniques, and improving team performance, consider taking one of our private, online courses. We offer courses in team leadership and project management techniques. We also offer on-site training for implementing these processes at the organizational level.

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Stakeholder Management

Stakeholder Management; Controlling Expectations

People’s expectations of the project results are the primary factor in their level of  support for your project and their final judgement as to the level of your success or failure. Stakeholder Management sounds pretty simple.  I want their expectations high enough to causstakeholder managemente them to cooperate but also to be low enough to be achieveable within the budget and duration.  Sounds reasonable.

But when you stand infront of  of the client executive or your executive stake holders seeking project plan approval its pretty easy for the audience to hear things your didn’t say so we need to be carful.  Like this:

  • Stakeholder, “I understand about the project reducing the error rate on our employee paychecks. But how about the security on the whole payroll system and  protection against hackers”
  • Bad PM answer, “We are going to ratchet up security at every level in the system including the people who take employee phone calls.
  • Better PM answer, “You are correct our focus is reducing errors to less than 1%. We are going to adhere to  all of the security standards the company has set and include every  control process presently in place.

Why is the first one bad? It creates expectations you are not going to meet.  That stakeholder will be wondering about and asking about all the new payroll security you promised and be disappointed when there is none.

The second answer is much better.  You start of by complementing the stakeholder on knowing the scope, which reemphasizes it.  Then you say no new security by telling the person that the new process will have all the controls the current one does. The answer may not thrill the stakeholder but you have restricted the expectations.

Steps in Stakeholder Management

This kind of careful speech is something you will use continuously with your stakeholders. But there is a lot more to stakeholder management. Here are the steps:

  1. Identify your stakeholders, anyone who will be affected by your project. You are interested in all of them, but focus on stakeholders in management.
  2. Unearth their expectations for the project and correct those expectations immediately if they are different than your project scope.  Letting an incorrect expectation just hang in the air always come back to haunt you.
  3. Regularly monitor the management stakeholders feeling them out for issues they have with the project and any changes in expectations.

Follow those steps and keep good notes of each Stakeholder’s expectations so you can spot changes.

Scheduling Software

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Using the right scheduling software is key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget. Project scheduling software lets you do the critical steps more efficiently than using ineffective options like scheduling in Excel or on a yellow notepad. Those waste too much of your time and don’t help you complete these critical steps:

  • Spotting problems early so you can fix them before it’s too late
  • Optimizing the use of resources so you can finish as early as possible
  • Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
  • Updating everyone’s schedule in mere minutes when things change.

There are many more benefits that scheduling software can provide when you’re building a project schedule. But those four items are the minimum tools that every project manager needs. Managing a schedule in Excel or on a yellow notepad give you none of those items. Let’s explore what a you need in a software tool. The best option depends on the scale of the projects you manage.     Shorten the Project Duration

Scheduling Software Capabilities

Small Project – Done within your organization for the manager or your boss
Medium Project – Affects multiple departments within your organization or done for customers/clients
Strategic Project – Organization-wide projects with long term effects

Scheduling Software Capability #1: Draw visual project charts like Gantt and PERT

Small Project – These visual charts are useful for communicating with the sponsor and your team.
Medium Project – As the scale of the project increases, you want visuals that compare actual performance to the baseline schedule and cost. You also want to display slack and delay for optimizing the schedule and resources. Earned value reporting is also a tool for this level of reporting.
Strategic Project – At this scale, you require sophisticated reporting by task, major deliverable, resources and the lending department. Earned value, cost and time variance reports are also required.         Buying Project Softwarescheduling software

Scheduling Software Capability #2: Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required

Small Project – Basing the schedule on work and availability, not just start/finish dates, is a best practice. Skip it if finishing on time is not critical.
Medium Project – Resource-driven schedules are a must at this level. So is automatic resource leveling which ensures that no resource is assigned more work than they can do.
Strategic Project – You need resource-driven schedules and software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they are assigned.       Project Portfolio Management

Scheduling Software Capability #3: Schedule using predecessor relationships

Small Project – This is not needed on small projects with 2-3 people.
Medium & Strategic Projects – This links tasks and establishes their sequence. When matched with resource-driven scheduling, it saves you substantial time. It also gives you tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. This can be a life saver for guarding against silly ideas that don’t support the projects’ scope.

Scheduling Software Capability #4: Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities

Small Project – Not needed
Medium & Strategic Projects – Helps the organization complete a large volume of projects by ensuring that people work on the most important projects.

Scheduling Software Concepts

Scheduling software will provide you with time-saving scheduling and analysis tools. It will also archive data for use on future projects. These tools include analysis of the critical path using slack and delay data. This lets you optimize the use of your resources to finish as early as possible. The critical path should also be used to identify problems early and quickly model alternative solutions. Critical Path Technique

The value of an archive is that it makes future project estimates easier and more accurate. With the appropriate project scheduling software, tracking actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates builds a database for estimating on the next projects. Even a small project can waste a lot of a project manager’s time if these tasks are done manually.

Scheduling Software: The Reality

Too many project managers don’t have the tools or the training to track actual performance versus plan, optimize their schedule or make efficient use of their resources. They are regularly surprised by problems that a bit of data would have helped them anticipate. They are unable to provide decision-making data to executives on ways to finish the project early. They also can’t tell executives the cost of changes they want to make. As a result, the project is guided by guesses so the company’s financial and human resources are used inefficiently and project failure rates are high. Keys to Successful Project Scheduling

Scheduling Software: “Best Practices” In the Real World

Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paychecks. In this situation, a project manager can’t really argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project. What a project manager needs is data from scheduling software that quantifies the impact of changes and models alternative ways of solving problems. Having that data gives the project manager more credibility with the sponsor and executives. It also gives executives solid data on which to base their decisions. They can stop plucking project due dates and budgets out of the air.

scheduling softwareScheduling Software Overview

Scheduling software comes in many different levels of sophistication with prices ranging from $50 to $20,000 or more. The software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. Scheduling software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members. It just lets you accomplish these and many other tasks more efficiently. So before we look at the different kinds of scheduling software, let’s talk about the kinds of projects to manage and the levels of PM skills. This will enable you to pick a scheduling software tool that’s appropriate for you and the organization in which you work. You can decide which of the following three categories of project manager fits you best.

Managing Smaller Projects

PMs in this category often plan and schedule with only durations rather than work estimates and resource capacity. Many times these PMs have no need to develop or track a project budget because status reports are limited to tracking the completion date. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all of the projects into a portfolio. And it doesn’t manage the overall utilization of the people who work on projects.

In this situation, there is a very broad range of scheduling software choices and many packages will provide Gantt and PERT charts. For project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing some simple Gantt and PERT charts, the low end scheduling software tools are fine. There are plenty of packages that will automate the basics for you. There are also a host of web-based products that operate at this capability level. For under $100 there are products like: Gantter or ZOHO Projects and others.

Managing Larger Cross-functional Projects for Executives or Clients

As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, the demands on the project management techniques grow. So does the required capability of the scheduling software tool. Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates isn’t enough. You need software tools that simulate the project and optimize the schedule every time you make a change. The budget is an important issue in planning and tracking. So you must build project plans based on the estimated hours of work required and the sequence of tasks, not start and finish dates. You need scheduling software that gives you the capability to budget and schedule internal employees as well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. The scheduling software should provide more sophisticated earned value reporting, slack and delay reports for fine tuning as well as the critical path and resource leveling capability.

The software cost jumps in price to the $300-$700 level and the learning curve for these software tools is much steeper than the first level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Quickbase (Quicken).

Managing in a Multi-project Environment

At the high-end are PMs managing multiple projects or operating in a mature project organization where resource utilization is managed across all projects. Executives are accountable for portfolios of projects. In this environment, you need project management processes to bring consistency to project planning and tracking. While scheduling software never ensures a consistent project management process (despite all the people who think it can), this environment adds to the software requirements. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information. This allows decision-makers to prioritize projects, allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects.

This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and scheduling software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. The data it provides will allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. They usually want detailed project budgets and have the software come close to mimicking the company’s cost accounting system. But they want actual cost data a lot sooner than the accounting department provides it. Project managers often need sophisticated risk assessment tools and resource loading features as well as detailed performance tracking.

If you want a lot, you’ve got to spend a lot. Scheduling software for these multi-project users runs from $4,000-$20,000 with network versions to run on your LAN and lots of team communication capabilities. There are dozens of products in this range and some of the packages from the second level also provide the needed capabilities. They include: Microsoft Project, Primavera, and other products.

Scheduling Software Training

You can learn how to use scheduling software in our basic and advanced project management software courses. At the beginning of your course, you and Dick Billows, PMP, will have a video conference to design your program and what you want to learn. The two of you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage: business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Critical Path Method for Shortening Duration

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks in a project. It determines the project’s duration and completion date and it can change  minute to minute. It’s easy to use the project critical path method to cut the duration and optimize your project plans to finish as quickly as possible. Let’s see an example of how to correctly use the critical path method. Schedule & Software Main Page

Chris Pimbock, the Impudent Project Manager, took a vacant seat the crowded passenger boarding area at gate #63. The seat was near to two sullen business travelers waiting to fly home on a Friday evening. They were staring through the big plate glass windows of the terminal at a mechanic standing atop an aluminum ladder working on the jet’s port engine.

The blue-suited professional sitting to Chris’ left muttered, “The gate attendant better wake up. Those dopes have to get another mechanic working on that engine pronto!  That’s a critical path task. Without working engines, we won’t go anywhere!”

The thoroughly wrinkled passenger across the aisle growled, “Nah, that captain and his crew sitting near the gate keep looking at their watches. I bet they are about to go off duty. Without a crew, we won’t go anywhere. Getting a new crew is what that gate attendant should work on. That’s the critical path.”

Feigning ignorance, Chris Pimbock asked, “How do you know what’s on the critical path?

With an exasperated sigh, the guy in the blue suit said, “Experience. Hey, I do this stuff for a living and I know a critical path task when I see one.” The other passenger nodded agreement.

Chris casually looked over the boarding area at gate #63 and the tarmac. The fight crew was still sitting in the corner chatting. A food truck was sitting on the tarmac with the driver reading a magazine. A fuel truck waited and that driver was watching the mechanic. The gate attendant had left her station and gone to help at the next gate, #61. She was helping get the passengers for that flight checked-in and on board.

The rumpled guy mumbled to Chris, “Is that stupid gate attendant gonna get more mechanics? Wait, look the food truck just drove off. That gate attendant is an idiot; ignoring us and working at another gate! Now we’ll have to wait even longer for another food truck while she helps her buddy at the next gate.”

Chris said, “Ahh, give the woman some credit, she knows what she is doing.”project critical path

“That’s crazy. Look the fuel truck is leaving too!” the wrinkled PM snorted. “All she cares about are the passengers at gate #61!

Chris frowned and asked, “So the gate attendant should assign more mechanics to the critical path task and get another fuel truck. Is that critical too?”

The two PMs sneered at Chris. One muttered, “Duh.” The other nodded sadly and said, “Sure. You’ve got to really watch the project critical path tasks like a hawk. And when you add more people you get the tasks done faster.”

Just then the first PM said, “Look,” and pointed out the window at the mechanic who was waving frantically at the gate attendant and holding up a broken wrench and mouthing the words, “Need a new wrench!”

The gate attendant was too busy at the other gate to look out the window. Failing to catch the attendant’s eye, the mechanic picked up his broken wrench and tried to work with it, shaking his head in frustration.

Chris said, “What happened?”

“Thanks to that moron gate attendant,  the flight will be delayed even longer. The mechanic needs a new tool and she couldn’t see him because she has abandoned us and gone to gate #61. I’m gonna tell her what a dope she is!”

As the wrinkled PM rose to walk to the counter, Chris noted that the plane at gate #61 was leaving. He said, “I would give it a minute or two before you make a jerk of yourself.”

The wrinkled PM slumped back down and said. “That gate attendant has really botched this flight. We’re going to be here for hours.”

They settled back into their chairs and in a moment the gate attendant picked up a black microphone and cleared her throat.

The blue suit predicted, “Now, that dope is going to cancel the flight.”

The loud speakers in the waiting room hissed as a new food truck arrived and the attendant said, “Our new airplane will be pulling up to gate #61 momentarily. Please move to that gate now. We will board in 5 minutes, the plane has fuel, the food is on board and we’re ready to go.”

Chris said, “I guess that gate attendant did the calculations and decided that the sequence of tasks involved in fixing the plane, fueling it, loading the food and replacing the crew was longer than getting us a new plane that was ready to go. She used the duration data, not just guesses, about what task was critical. She kept her eye on the right critical path the whole time. Most importantly she focused on the correct scope; getting us home tonight, not just fixing the plane.”

You can learn to identify and optimize the project critical path by taking one of our online, instructor-led courses. You’ll get personal coaching from an expert project manager as you practice applying the best practice techniques to realistic project case studies. You can work at your own pace and fit your schedule.

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