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It’s all about project management, isn’t it? To drive business results, most general managers juggle numerous projects with varying amplitudes, durations and timelines, team members and impact areas. And as your career progresses, successful project management… well it begets more project management of bigger projects with more global implications. If you’re ambitious, this prospect is exhilarating. But no matter how big or small the projects you manage are, the same project management skills will bring you success.
Here are four proven project management skills for success, along with some insights from IMD Business School, a leading international business school based in Lausanne, Switzerland and Singapore. IMD has been ranked first in open programs by the Financial Times six years in a row (2012-2017).
It all starts with a blueprint. The project management plan you learned about in B-school may seem like a boring place to start this article, but developing and using it properly serves a purpose. It will guide and organize your project so that you can see the goals and the way to get there clearly from the outset. Now of course, if a project plan is just a figurative piece of paper, it won’t mean much. It is the execution that really counts.
Your project plan style won’t be identical to someone else’s, but let’s take a look at typical components to understand the purpose of each:
i. The goal: A clearly stated goal is the heart of your project plan. It sets you and everyone on the team on the same page, envisioning the same outcome.
ii. Budget/Resources: Knowing what you have to work with (money, skills, etc.) keeps your action-items realistic.
iii. Strategy: Self-explanatory – how do you intend to achieve your goals? Setting out a clear strategy with appropriate tactics is what will show your mettle as a project manager.
iv. Timeline: Self-explanatory too, but one note: if you’re over-optimistic by character and you’ve had problems sticking to timelines in the past, why not make this project the time to work in buffer to each step?
v. Indicators and deliverables: Linked to your timeline, these are what will tell you if you are really sticking to your path and to your goal.o rebound in the other direction and “just draw a rough plan and implement.” His advice? Create an action plan and make it work by ensuring a distinct definition of your goal and testing its resilience. He suggests you ask yourself four questions to get control of those variables that can impede your success:
ii. How favorable or hostile is the context? This helps you really know your stakeholders and the environment, so you adapt your strategy accordingly.
iii. How pertinent is your strategy? The context can evolve around you rapidly – especially in the age of digital disruption – so ask yourself this question at the outset and along the way.
iv. How ready is your team? An aligned team is your top project management resource.
All the planning and strategy in the world are useless in project management if you can’t lead your team. One thing to keep in mind, especially if you are not sure of your leadership skills is that leadership is very much a learnable project management skill. Because each person’s leadership style is entirely unique, good leadership training should aim to bring out what is in you, not impose a set of rules. Self-awareness and leadership coaching are helpful devices to enable you to become sensitive to your own leadership style – feel your leadership. Leadership coaching exercises give you a safe environment to test out your abilities with impartial, expert feedback from coaches.
The most effective leaders in todays’ corporations are those who empower their team and who are able to focus on the relationships between people and their dynamics in the team.
Just as you need to develop your confidence as a leader for project management, it’s also important to consider how you develop and guide a positive team dynamic. “The most effective leaders in todays’ corporations are those who empower their team and who are able to focus on the relationships between people and their dynamics in the team,” says IMD Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change Ina Toegel. “A healthy team dynamic is crucial to high performance: it allows teams to make effective use of their time, to be truly engaged creatively, and therefore – to find optimal solutions to problems."
Professor Toegel says for project leaders to create a healthy team dynamic, a first – challenging – step is to create a “feedback culture”. In a positive feedback culture, intra-team feedback must be an open discussion, not random or unsolicited (even advice that is well-meant can feel aggressive when it is unsolicited). She suggests instituting feedback sessions to provide an environment wherein team members can develop good feedback skills solutions to problems.”
In a well-led team, team dynamics and relationships are a central feature – not an aside to the “real” work at hand. “High-performance teams begin and end their meetings with a discussion about their relationships. A ‘check-in’ is a short sharing of feelings, with each member sharing positive or negative sentiments,” explains Professor Toegel. “It is the team leader’s task to role model that it is safe to share such sentiments, as long as they are constructively phrased.
“Leading teams to high-performance requires open conversations about the relationships inside the team – how are we all similar; how are we all different; and how are these differences and similarities manifested in our collaboration? Such conversations are important for creating a feedback culture, but ultimately also result in team agility by ensuring a safe space for failing, learning, and therefore – innovating.”
You count on people to make your project happen, and what you do will affect various people in varying ways. And people can be funny, emotional creatures, which is why stakeholder management is a major project management skill.
But who are your stakeholders? Some of your project’s stakeholders may surprise you – and those are sometimes the most important ones. Not necessarily because they are “big” but because simple forethought, some good communication (and possibly a judicious give-way or two) can keep things from spinning out of control. Consider the ridiculousness, expense (and probably heartache) of building projects that have to be diverted around homeowners who won’t sell. There’s a word for this: nail houses.
Let’s refresh on the steps to good stakeholder management:
i. Who are your stakeholders? The standard means of identifying your stakeholders is to think of who will be affected internally and externally, and to distinguish primary and secondary stakeholder groups. Correctly identifying your stakeholders is a crucial project management skill.
ii. How will you engage your stakeholders? Engage your stakeholders by providing opportunities for them to have a say in what happens, feel that their contribution counts, and feel that their needs will be met.
iii. How and when will you communicate with your stakeholders? Appropriate communication with your stakeholders is vital. This question has two parts:
(a) First, from a technical standpoint, what are the tools and lines of communication that are most appropriate for each stakeholder group? Ask this question in terms of investment (time and finance) and value generation. That means that you’ll maybe have weekly meetings with the project team, implement training sessions for those who will be the end-users, and create a digital campaign to communicate with an external audience. Or something like that. And then:
(b) What do you have to say and especially what do you need to hear? Your communication plan should clearly outline your modes and message for effective stakeholder management.
iv. What do you need to deliver to gain their support or meet their needs? If you don’t, all the talking in the world won’t make your project a success. You may have, of course, to guide stakeholders around to a different way of having their needs met.
v. Follow-through. Stakeholder management must happen throughout a project, not just at the project planning stages. Staying in touch with stakeholders and lets you reassess your strategies and, if there are issues, change gears or clarify your position.
In fact, it is not uncommon for organizations to antagonize certain stakeholder groups while completely ignoring others. Organizations can become sustainable only by engaging with their stakeholders to understand and respond to their needs.
Positively impacting stakeholder groups is key to not only good project management, but – ultimately – to sustaining your organization. “However, it is not always obvious how organizations can impact all stakeholders positively or how they can maximize this impact,” explains IMD Business School Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Sustainability Francisco Szekely. “In fact, it is not uncommon for organizations to antagonize certain stakeholder groups while completely ignoring others. Organizations can become sustainable only by engaging with their stakeholders to understand and respond to their needs.”
“There should not be a distinction between primary stakeholders and secondary stakeholders, or between stakeholders within each grouping,” says Professor Szekely, who uses the tragic and graphic example of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster to illustrate his point. “Despite not sharing direct financial ties, secondary stakeholders have the same stake in an organization as do primary stakeholders. By making all stakeholders equitable, a firm’s financial objectives will not be achieved at the expense of a firm’s social and environmental objective.”
The error that Professor Szekely highlights is to read “primary” stakeholders as “most important” and “secondary” stakeholders as “less important”. In fact, this definition is incorrect. Your project’s primary stakeholders are those who are directly tied to it financially, such as shareholders, employees, customers and suppliers. The secondary stakeholders are those who are indirectly affected by the project, such as the public at large or certain communities. The side-effects of a drug treatment can sometimes be more harmful than the disease, and therefore have a greater impact than the primary (intended) impact of the drug. Clinicians must make this risk assessment in selecting a drug to treat a patient. A similar thing can happen with stakeholders. The bad of an effect on secondary stakeholders can be greater than the good of the intended effect for primary stakeholders. This can lead to failure of your project management.
Your building is built. The companies have merged. The product has launched. In short, whatever project you were managing is now considered done or at least at a stop-point. You are ready to move on to the next project or, likely, turn your attention to the myriad of other projects on your plate. But wait! Remember the measurables you put in your project management plan to evaluate the success or failure or somewhere-in-between of your project? Don’t skip that step. Aside from marking a conclusion to the project or the transition to its next phase, this step will give you valuable learning and insights for other projects you take on – it’s a rich time for growing your project management skills.
IMD Business School Professor of Leadership and Organization Ben Bryant says that more senior executives are most at risk of not taking advantage of what they can learn through project management. “There are two fundamental barriers to learning from experiences in a senior executive role,” says Professor Bryant. “The first is that as executives acquire greater responsibilities, their learning moves from universal truths to being context specific. They can too easily believe that experiences can generate learning in the form of simple formulae or rules of thumb such as ‘build a good team around you.’ But learning is likely to be far more complex than a simple explanation can convey.”
Professor Bryant says that even the most successful business people are often not able to articulate what has led to their project management successes. Instead, if asked about their success, they will wax on about a general principle or rule of thumb. What greater value could be gained from delving deeper, and truly understanding what worked to make your project a success? Professor Bryant refers to the Morgan McCall adage, the “the 70:20:10 rule”, which suggests that managers learn 70% of their skills/knowledge from experience, 20% from coaching and 10% from training programs. Taking the time to assess the outcomes of your project will enable you to maximize your 70% (not mathematically possible, but surely possible in terms of making an adage into your own project management learning style).
This is even truer of project management failures. Sure, it is a cliché that you learn from your failures. But how many people have the humility to do it, and do it well? It is difficult, Professor Bryant explains, to separate the context-specific failure from one that relates back to a more general understanding of the project manager’s decisions and skills. Likely the situation was a bit of both; some context-specific and some that has a learnable point that could be applied to improve for the next project. The trick is distinguishing the two and then carrying it forward to your next project. Taking a formal, concerted approach to project success evaluation can help.
An over-reliance on rules of thumb learned in other contexts can lead to failure.
Professor Bryant points to two elements that hold executives back from learning from experiences. The first, which we have already alluded to, is the context. “What works in one situation will not necessarily work in another,” says Professor Bryant. “Simple rules of thumb are useful in the initial stages of a career and are easy to pass on, but their utility diminishes in senior executive roles. In fact, an over-reliance on rules of thumb learned in other contexts can lead to failure.”
The other thing that can hold you back from evaluating your project outcomes in a way that enables you to take advantage of learning is what Professor Bryant calls “emotional contamination”. “Successful experiences make us feel great. Failure makes us feel sad or angry. These emotional responses make it difficult to learn,” he says. So learn success evaluation skills, practice them with each project. You’ll identify the context-specific and understand the emotional contamination present. State why your project succeeded or failed, to what degree, and take that with you to your next management project.
Project management skills rest on a combination of technical skills – planning and outlining, following through, and evaluation – and emotional skills – leadership, stakeholder engagement and communication. External factors will always impact project outcomes, but if you learn to strengthen your project management skills on both sides of the equation, you are well on your way to enjoying the personal, professional and enterprise benefits of repeated project management success.
IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland and Singapore has been ranked first in open programs by the Financial Times six years in a row (2012-2017). IMD has been training global leaders for more than 70 years.
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