Managing the Real

How often do we, as professionals and managers, get sucked into the whirlwind of status reports, new-initiatives-everyday, number crunching, endless meetings and presentations? Sometimes, the best management is to do simple and obvious things more effectively.

In this context, I enjoyed reading an insightful post titled “Finding more time for real management” at Business Strategy Review, London Business School. Here is an important question raised in the post.

The classic example is people management. The principles (work autonomy, knowing what you do matters, the importance of the first-line manager) are well documented, but they are frequently ignored in practice. So what would happen if we could find a way of putting some of them into practice in a dedicated way?

In this post, authors Julian Birkinshaw and Simon Caulkin report on one experiment they did with sales and service team at the Stockholm offices of a major insurance company. In this experiment, they asked a team’s manager to free up a few hours each day (delegate more effectively and excuse herself from meetings etc.) to just do the real management. The team was not aware that they are a part of experiment, just the manager knew about it. She started spending these couple of hours everyday to work directly with her group, help them do their job better, brainstorm and improve constantly. After 3 weeks, the results were dramatically different with 5% improvement in sales, improvement in team performance and increased motivation levels.

Here is the key thought:

If you are trying to help your company to improve its management processes, it is easy to get drawn towards exciting new initiatives like crowdsourcing; but the real impact is more likely to come from doing simple and obvious things more effectively. And frontline coaching is about as simple and obvious as it gets: every company needs it, and yet most do it pretty poorly.

Read the original post for more details and findings. They are definitely worth a thought (and action).

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Project Management: Science? Art? Common Sense?

I recently heard someone saying, “Project management is just science.” “Do I agree?” I asked myself.

Here is what I think: Project management is both science and art, but it is the art of project management that makes great project managers. It is science because there are essential processes and elements that make up project management (e.g. scope, time, cost, quality etc.) How to create a project plan, manage risks, track project, report status is all defined out there and a project manager has to be clear on those fundamentals. That’s the science part of it, and probably the easier one. It represents “explicit knowledge” about project management and a lot of people out there know these fundamentals.

But simply knowing these fundamentals does not make a good project manager and that’s where the “art” part comes into the play. After you have learned the concepts of project management, it is all about working with people – customers, internal stakeholders and team members. If a lot of your success as a project manager is dependent on how you deal with these people, understanding basic human needs and psychology is absolutely essential.

Second is adaptability and situational understanding. While most methodologies deal with a standard definition of a “project”, every project in reality has a unique context and need attached to it. Understanding this context and adapting the core project management concepts to this context is crucial for project success. If you have a clear under understanding of the “why?” part of the project, aligning standard methods to the purpose is all about common sense.

Third important aspect is putting these concepts in the right perspective. For example, creating a project schedule (as a deliverable) is not as important as the process of creating a schedule, thinking through each task, generating buy-in from team members and keeping them involved. Generating metrics is not as important as finding out what they really tell us about project. These are simple things, but very critical to success.

Fourth is to keep a constant eye on results. How much is achieved? What is pending and how much time do we have? There are formal ways to keep track of status but the simplest of them is to have a continuous feedback loop within the team by formal/informal meetings, stand-ups and retrospectives. But doing it regularly is again common sense.

Understanding the science of project management is the “least common denominator” for anyone to get into project management. It is the art of understanding the context, dealing with people/situations and putting things in right perspective that make great project managers.

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Join in the conversation: Do you agree that project management is just science? What goes into making great project managers? What have you observed around you?

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On Accountability: A Story and a Few Lessons

Consider this story:

Jay is a newly hired project manager whose primary accountability is to manage a large client account and ensure that all projects within that account adhere to scope, time, cost and quality parameters. The primary KRA for Jay was to drive profitability and customer satisfaction (and hence repeat business). Jay did a fantastic job in first few months and hence the expectations from him grew. He was now asked to mentor several other project managers, help in hiring new managers, provide three different reports in a week to various stakeholders, contribute in a few organizational initiatives and offer technical help in the sales process. What started with a clear accountability changed into a chronic case of multi-tasking. Jay was expected to reach his goal while following the exact process and still doing twelve other things that were unstructured.

In this case, to keep Jay focused on one important goal is the accountability of his boss – and if the boss failed on this one, Jay would definitely fail.

So what does this story tell us? A few things:

Accountability flows from top to bottom. You can’t hold people accountable, unless you demonstrate accountability yourself. If you do that, you will be perceived as a hypocrite. Result? Resentment in the team.

I think that fairness is an important element of accountability. If you want someone to perform, be fair to them. Maximize their chances of success. If you need more of their skills elsewhere, create a structure accordingly to avoid burn-out.

It starts with clarity on outcomes. When people work on many priorities, they get a chance to justify their failure by putting other things forward. If you want to hold people accountable for something, give them complete clarity of what is expected.

Another important realization is that accountability should always be aligned to a purpose and people should be given their space to perform. In Jay’s case, not following organization’s rules (processes) was considered breach of accountability even when results were in line with (and exceeded) the expectations. Never hold people accountable for following the steps and rules, but always hold them accountable for a goal – a big WHY. If there is a non-compliance to organizational rules, leaders need to assess and manage the risk (and cost) of non-compliance.

Accountability does not work without authority. If Jay had to validate every decision with his boss, he would have never performed at first place. People need space to perform, to execute their ideas and remain creative about how goals are achieved. Don’t confuse micro-management with accountability.

Accountability is never driven out of fear. If people are too concerned about what happens to them if they fail, they will never take so called “creative risks” to drive the initiative forward. Allowing people to make mistakes and learn from them is an important part of a leader’s accountability.

Establishing a culture of accountability is a double-edged sword. It is an opportunity to align people to strategic intentions, but if done wrong, it can create a totally opposite culture.

Join in the conversation: How did you drive accountability in your organization? Your team? What are your lessons?

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Did you check out “Graceful Leadership 101” (Free PDF) yet? Call them “managerial manners” or “leadership etiquette”, these are 101 simplest ways to add remarkability and result-orientation to your leadership style.

Graceful Leadership 101: Free PDF Book

People are promoted to lead others based on their seniority in technical areas. Others become managers after getting a management degree from a b-school that never taught them the fundamentals of dealing with people. They end up putting off people through their behavior and set a wrong example for their subordinates to follow.

In a business setting, the cost of having such leaders is invisible, but often huge. When they try to “drive” others through their narrow views and focus too much on “monitor and control”, they kill initiative. Over time, this builds culture where people don’t own things up, pass the buck, blame others and cruise along the status-quo – exactly opposite of what we need in an initiative-led and innovation-oriented business environment.

Leadership is a privilege, a huge responsibility and a glorious opportunity to add value – to business, to team members and customers. In my view, many competent and well-intentioned managers today can elevate their team performance only if they become a little more graceful. More considerate and kind.

Graceful Leadership 101 (Free PDF Download) is a running list of simple (and common-sense) ideas that can help leaders become more graceful. You can call them “managerial manners” or “leadership etiquette”, these are 101 simplest ways to add remarkability and result-orientation to your leadership style.

How can you use this list?

  1. Share this list with all your senior managers, middle managers and technical leaders. This should serve as a good starting point for focusing on the “human” aspect of work. Use this as a part of “new manager induction”.

  2. Hand this over to any one you know who aspires to be a manager/leader. Share this with MBA students you know.

  3. Tweet about it, share it on Facebook for the benefit of people in your network.

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Leading Projects: Balancing Rational with Emotion

A start-up or a fledgling organization relies on individual heroism of their people to successfully deliver projects. These team members are enthusiastic, engaged and willing to see the project succeed. They are emotionally connected to the purpose of project/organization. Emotion is the basis of how they operate.

Then the organization starts growing. To manage growth, processes are introduced. New tools are implemented and an org chart with hierarchy is established. Slowly, layers of processes and people are added and focus shifts to processes and practices. So far, so good. The problem is when focus shifts only on processes and practices. When rational takes over the emotion.

Processes and practices are absolutely important for an organization to grow, learn and sustain. But often, project managers focus too much on the planning, scheduling, managing risks and watching the metrics that they forget to focus on people. This results in disengagement (or in other words, dispassionate compliance) where people do the minimum required to get a task done.

Consider this: A study published by Harvard Business Review found that average overrun on IT projects is 27% and one out of six projects had overrun of over 200%. Another study revealed that IT failure rates results in loss of $50 billion to $150 billion to US economy alone.

The cost of an emotionally disengaged team to a project is huge. Organizations have thousands of hours of project management experience. Processes standards are getting better and more mature. Why then are projects still in a problem?

The possible answer, according to me is: we need to balance rational with emotion, process with empathy and practices with people. We need processes for sure, but we also need a strong culture of consistent engagement. We need a project charter for sure, but people also need a compelling vision to subscribe to. We need to understand the requirements of customer for sure, but we also need to understand the emotional needs of our team members. We need skills of our people to go up along as the bars in project progress chart go up. We need experience, but we also need to experiment. We need communication and we need engagement.

Every project we execute is a glorious opportunity to practice leadership, to make a difference in a customer’s business, to nurture the talents of our people. As a project manager, you can make that happen only when you focus on the emotional aspect as much as the rational one.

That, to me is what makes a great project manager and a team great!

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Related reading at QAspire Blog:

Quality is Human. Quality is Love.

Quality is Human

When leaders rely too much on processes, metrics, facts and trends to measure project/organization’s quality, they forget one thing: that quality is about being human. Quality is human.

That is because people drive quality and exercise their choice of delivering good versus great work. Because work allows people to expand their capacity to deliver. People work for people (customers).

Knowledge world of work thrives on human judgement – our ability to see patterns, listen to our intuition, use our implicit understanding, learning about the context and attend to nuances of work – precisely what makes the ‘human’ aspect of quality so important.

Have processes, measure right things but don’t forget being human.

Quality is Love

Part of being human about quality is also to realise that people only care for quality when they love what they are doing. Quality is about love. Quality is an expression of love for the subject.

When we strive to understand/deliver what customers wants, try to improve our work, when we make mistakes and learn from them, it is essentially an act of love.

Why would we walk any mile extra for things that we don’t deeply care about? For things that we don’t believe are the right things to do?

Challenge is to find enough people who are passionate about what they do and then let them lead/self-organize. You won’t have to worry too much about quality then.

Quality is Happiness

Quality is not just ”degree of excellence” or “conformance to requirements”. Quality is Happiness. (Read the full post here)

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Related Posts:

– Views on The Big Q – Quality of Design

‘Quality’ Leadership 25

Quality? Excellence? What?

Effective Facilitation 25

  • A novice manager tells people what needs to be done. A wise manager listens, questions and challenges.
  • People are not interested in what you tell them to do (command and control). They are interested in what they control and learn from what they are doing (empowerment).
  • Facilitation helps in both. In getting things done and ensuring that team members learn from that process.
  • The purpose of facilitating is: to get something done and to ensure that the person who is executing learns something valuable from the process of doing.
  • Facilitation is the key to developing people. A tool to lead.
  • Further, effective facilitation is also the key to build a great team.
  • If we are dealing with professionals, why do they need facilitation? They need facilitation so that they can work together as a team, do it better, faster, more creatively and more effectively.
  • Facilitation helps people reach their potential and elevate performance.
  • If you are a manager who is facilitating a team, you are not more powerful than them. You serve them, so that they become better and make you look good.
  • The act of facilitation should make things easy for them. If you are not conscious about how you are facilitating, you can make it difficult.
  • Facilitating someone in doing something is a great way to learn newer aspects of your work. Remember the rule? We learn only a bit of what we are taught, we learn a great deal of what we do and we learn the most when we teach someone.
  • In a group, facilitation starts with a common objective that everyone understands. That is #1 job of facilitator.
  • If common objective is not understood/defined, facilitation helps them achieve consensus on the goal.
  • You can facilitate someone on three key areas: The purpose of work (Why), the process of achieving that purpose (How) and specific tasks in that process (What).
  • Additionally, you can facilitate someone so that their expectations are managed, understood and communicated. To address their real concerns.
  • People will only allow you to facilitate them when they see value. Ensure that they see the value early in the facilitation process.
  • The art of facilitation also involves knowing when NOT to facilitate. Facilitation does not equal spoon feeding. Show them the way and let them run.
  • The starting point of facilitation is listening. Acknowledging the experiences of the team member, appreciate what they say and encourage them to be open.
  • Clarity is at the heart of good facilitation. If you don’t understand their problem OR are not able to provide clarity to them on your viewpoints, facilitation does not help. Confirm, clarify and reflect.
  • Questions are your tools to clarify – open ended questions that bring out the real thing.
  • In a group situation or meetings, it is very crucial for the facilitator to balance between the extremes of clarity and ambiguity. To remain focused on the objective without getting impatient or biased is a challenge.
  • Sometimes, facilitation also means that you have to let go of the agenda and focus on an individual/team’s real problems.
  • Facilitation is about designing conversations that really matter and make a difference.
  • People make mistakes. Allow them, for their mistakes are their opportunities to learn. Share feedback.
  • Facilitation is at the core of modern day management. Teams need facilitation, clients need facilitation and individuals need facilitation. On a second thought, all the fundamentals of effective facilitation are also the fundamentals of effective management. No?

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Join in the conversation: As a manager or a leader, do you see yourself as a facilitator? What are your lessons? Share them here.

Team Success – Insights from Conversations

I have been a close observer of team dynamics in a project environment. In last 13 years, I have seen a number of teams that were highly successful, teams that failed initially and then succeeded, teams that succeeded only when there was a fire in the project and teams where success was constant and incremental.

Here is some of what I have gathered talking to successful teams.

  • “We were successful because each one of us exactly knew what we had to do.”
  • “There was chaos, but then, we all knew how important the the job was and why.”
  • “Our project manager made it enjoyable, despite all the challenges.”
  • “As a team, since roles/responsibilities were clear, we valued each other’s contribution. We trusted each other.”
  • “There was no power game. Our leader was never bossy.”
  • “Everyone was fully involved.”
  • “Expectations and communication was clear, and it only helped us deliver what customer expected.”
  • “The team was not really a team, but a bunch of great friends. We hanged out together to ensure that we work hard and we party harder.”
  • “We were treated as ‘humans’ who were ‘engaged’, and not as ‘resources’ who were simply ‘deployed’.”
  • “Some tough calls had to be taken and were willing to take some calculated risks on our project.”
  • “We did think a lot about processes in the project initiation. We also ensured that all stakeholders understood the process.”
  • “Our leader gave us a lot of space to try new things and experiment. A few such successful experiments resulted in a lot of improvement in our performance.”
  • “The project manager exactly knew the strengths and weaknesses of our team members. People were only assigned to tasks they were good at.”
  • “The decision making process was participative.”
  • “Yes, we had conflicts and differences. But at the end of it all, I think our differences allowed us to think differently.”
  • “As a project lead, I had to ensure that team does what they are supposed to do. My role was to ensure that all peripheral issues are managed so that team remains focused.”
  • “I was held accountable for whatever I delivered and this was expected from all.”

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P.S: Did you check out my new Tumblr blog? That is where I share short bites of insights and wisdom from my friends in blogosphere. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Seth Godin on Project Leadership

We live in a time when our career is not just a sum total of years we spent in the industry. Our career is about what projects we initiated/handled/led and what difference did the project deliver. Project is a new eco-system, a new playground where we play and thrive as professionals to deliver our best.

Since everything we do is a project, I thought of seeking some guidance from Seth Godin (my hero) via his blog posts on how to thrive and lead in a project-oriented world:

If you choose to manage a project, it’s pretty safe. As the manager, you report. You report on what’s happening, you chronicle the results, you are the middleman.

If you choose to run a project, on the other hand, you’re on the hook. It’s an active engagement, bending the status quo to your will, ensuring that you ship.

Via post: “The difference between running and managing a project”

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Here’s another gem:

Instead of seeking excuses, the successful project is filled with people who are obsessed with avoiding excuses. If you relentlessly work to avoid opportunities to use your ability to blame, you may never actually need to blame anyone. If you’re not pulled over by the cop, no need to blame the speedometer, right?

Via post: Looking for the right excuse

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You don’t work on an assembly line any more. You work in project world, and more projects mean more chances to screw up, to learn, to make a reputation and to have more impact.

When it’s you against the boss, the goal is to do less work.

When it’s you against the project, the goal is to do more work.

– Via post: When is it due?

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So here are some critical questions:

  1. What projects you initiated in past few months (not because someone asked for, but because you believed in them)?
  2. Are you simply managing a project, or leading one?
  3. What difference are you delivering via your project(s)?

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Related Posts at QAspire

Projects as Opportunities to Practice Leadership

Thoughts on Project Leadership and Choices

Thoughts on Project Leadership and Choices

I love project management as a subject not only because it gets so much work done, but also because project management manifests how people operate.

I have written before that Projects are a great opportunity to practice leadership. They way we work on projects and the way we manage projects tell a lot of the kind of person we are. At each step, we have a choice. To choose abundance over constraints. To see possibilities amidst problems. To act rather than just preaching things. To solve rather than just pointing out. To seek engagement over giving instruction. To teach. To learn. To make a difference.

But we also know that managing projects and leading initiatives isn’t always easy. It is a constant struggle to deliver things in line with client’s ever changing expectations, on time with requisite quality and all this working with people at all levels. Sometimes, the grind can be unnerving and calls for a lot of patience and persistence.

It is amidst these moments that the true character of a project manager (and the team) is revealed. Great project leadership (not only management) calls for exercising those choices even in the most taxing situations. People often forget the specific details of the project, but they never forget the way work was accomplished and how they felt working on the project. That also means each decision, problem and interaction is an opportunity to think win-win, frame positive experiences, engage people and make a statement about your work.

So, if you are a project manager at any level, here are a few critical questions to think upon:

  • What statement are you making by the way you manage projects?
  • Are you creating positive experiences for your team, clients and your organization?
  • Are you the right example for your team to follow?

Have a Great Monday!