How To Improve Execution

3 Project Management Traps To Guard Against

From digital transformation to Elon Musk’s vision to travel to Mars, a lack of vision is no longer the problem for corporate executives. Today, the real problem is execution. In many cases, the execution burden falls on the shoulders of project managers. Unfortunately, many executives are unsure how to manage their projects and project managers effectively.

Unfortunately, a majority of executives are dropping the ball in sponsoring projects. A KPMG survey reported by the Project Management Institute found that 68% of companies lack effective project sponsors. Executives are preoccupied with their “day job” responsibilities and often neglect project work as a secondary priority.

These skill gaps in project management translate into bottom line impact. Recent research from the Project Management Institute finds that: “Organizations are wasting an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested, due to poor project performance.”

Typically, project managers have to corral people across the organization to ship their projects. Further, most project managers do not have any staff permanently assigned to them for support. Therefore, your project managers rely on executive support to break through barriers.

If you’re managing a critical initiative for your enterprise this year, use these strategies to guide your project managers to success. Let’s take a look inside the inner psychology that sometimes holds project managers back from success.

Trap 1: Drowning In Project Management Process

Project managers are known for their adherence to best practices – schedules, project charters, meetings and governance. Those processes add value insofar as they prevent important matters from being forgotten. Left unchecked by a thoughtful executive, project managers may become overly fixated on their processes.

Here are symptoms that you may have too much process:

  • Is your project manager preoccupied on “ticking the box” for the Project Management Office at the expense of project delivery?
  • Are you frustrated by jargon filled responses whenever you ask about the status of the project?

To steer your project managers away from this trap, use this strategy:

Ask your project managers what they would be most proud of reporting to the CEO about the project? That question will focus them on the right priority.

Trap 2: Your Project Managers Are Unwilling To Rock The Boat

Project managers are incentivized to develop great relationships. For the most part, that’s an excellent tendency to encourage. After all, strong relationships allow the project manager to win support from other departments. Like any strength, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Executives know there is a time and place for conflict. For example, calling out a subject matter expert for failing to provide advice and support to a project. Or bluntly informing a vendor that you will have to pursue legal action if they fail to deliver on their contractual responsibilities. A willingness to confront people in the right way on projects is absolutely critical.

Keep an eye out for these symptoms of a “too nice” project manager:

  • Endless follow ups. If your project manager has followed up on a late task more than twice, it is time for a different approach like going up the chain of command.
  • Unexpressed frustration. If you notice your project manager becoming more frustrated in their work, ask why. They may be sitting on a problem and not bringing up for review.

Give your project managers permission to raise problems and conflict with you:

“My role is to make tough decisions in the organization. However, I rely on you to provide me with quality information – including bad news whenever it happens – to make good decisions. If you or someone on the project makes a mistake, please come to me that day.”

Trap 3 : Challenge Misleading or Overly Positive Reports

In the course of sponsoring projects, you will receive status updates and similar documents on a regular basis. Some executives look at these documents for a few minutes before the meeting and then forget all about them. That’s a missed opportunity.

Why is that cursory approach to project reports ineffective?

A quick glance means you are likely to fall victim to the “watermelon report” problem. That’s a term I learned from a top project manager at IBM. At first glance, the project appears to be “green” (i.e. no problems and on schedule). However, when you dig deeper you find the project is “red” (i.e. over budget and behind schedule) on the inside.

Use these methods to challenge the overly positive project reports and presentations:

  • What risks have changed in the past month? Have any been eliminated or grown worse? Why?
  • Are you receiving the support you need from other departments to succeed? Is there anyone you would highlight as a risk to the project or an especially valuable asset?
  • I noticed that project spending significantly increased last month compared to the plan. Why did that happen?

By following these strategies and avoiding these common project management traps, you can guard against problems and get more successful projects.

How to Solve the Biggest Project Problems With The One Thing

An Interview With Jay Papasan

The One Thing

Jay Papasan is a bestselling author that serves as vice president and executive editor at Keller Williams Realty International, the worlds largest real estate company. He is also vice president of KellerINK, co-owner of Keller Capital, and co-owner, alongside his wife Wendy, of Papasan Properties Group with Keller Williams Realty in Austin, Texas. With Gary Keller, he is co-author of, “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.”

Q: How would you define “The One Thing” concept?

A: It’s an elaboration of the 80/20 principle. The idea is to find your most effective lever to achieve the results you want. Ultimately, this is a process to find the most effective action to achieve your most important priority. I think a lot of people spend time thinking about Pareto’s principle (i.e. the 80/20 principle) but they fail to apply that thinking to their number one priority.

It’s important to be both efficient (i.e. is your action creating an impact?) and effective (i.e. is your action creating progress toward your most important priority?). The goal of our book, “The One Thing” is to help people to become more effective.

We help readers to achieve this focus by using the Focusing Question:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

By narrowing your focus in this way, you’re able to make progress on what matters most. To go even further, you can connect your answer to the Focusing Question with your ultimate purpose in life.

It starts with identifying your number one priority and then looking for ways to apply your time and effort to that priority.

Q: How have you applied The One Thing concept with project managers?

A: When we were working on the book launch for “The One Thing,” I worked with a project manager. Our goal was to make the book into a million copy best selling book and reach the New York Times best seller list. To reach that goal, there were a lot of moving parts to manage.

I remember pulling our project manager aside and saying, “Hilary, you have so many One Things to think about… What do you think the true One Thing is for you as the project manager on this book launch?”

She thought about the question and replied, “At end of the day, it’s communication and accountability. It’s my job to track all of the moving parts on the project so that everybody knows what they need to do and when, then we’re on track.” In essence, her number one job was to communicate effectively to ensure accountability.

Q: I think you hit the nail on the head with accountability. I sometimes see mistakes in this area with task assignments. There’s a big difference between “Task A is assigned to the technical team” vs “Task A is assigned to Jane Smith, manager of the technical team.”

A: I love that! One of the ideas that I learned from Gary Keller, my co-author on the book, is the concept of a “driver.” When we have a project, we want to have ONE person who is uniquely responsible for that project. I think about it in these terms: who wakes up in the morning and thinks about this project? That’s the driver. Without that focus, it may not get done.

Specifics matter with accountability. I’ve seen this play out in the case of a car accident. I looked at a hundred people at staring at the scene of accident and nobody took action. Nothing happened to address the accident until a trained person – a firefighter – started to move. That person took accountability to help and that made all the difference.

You can’t hand a task to a group of people. You can only hand a task to a specific person. It’s a critical distinction.

Q: How would you apply “The One Thing” method to improving meeting productivity?

A: It comes down to clarity and priority. You probably have multiple agenda items to consider. In working with Gary Keller, I’ve learned that you need to number and order your agenda items in priority order. That way, you always start the meeting by applying your energy to the most important item. If you walk into a meeting with Gary and you’re unclear about the priorities, he will wait for you to clarify and organize your priorities. We start with number one and we don’t move on until it is done.

If you’re the third priority on the list, good luck! We will often spend most if not all of our meeting time on the number one priority. At the end of the day, I will only bring up lower level priorities if I felt there was a fiduciary duty to do so. By keeping focuses on the number one priority, you empower your people to execute the details and make good decisions.

Q: This is a welcome counter-point to the highly defined and rigid meeting agendas that some project managers use. By tradition, item one on the agenda might be “project status update” for instance. Instead, your approach would encourage us to ask, “for this specific week, what would be the most valuable topic or issue to cover in our 30 minute meeting?”

A: It’s a better question to ask. It’s also good to ask if going around the table for status updates adds value. In a way, that practice encourages accountability but it may not be the best use of time to do that in a meeting.

I’ve recently had some discussions with our CEO to explore what is our culture going to be around meetings and structure. Our organization has rapidly been expanding, so there’s a need for structure and purposeful. I think a lot of people are inefficient with their communication in email and meetings. Asking The Focusing Question and similar questions goes a long way to focusing the discussion.

Q: How do you encourage other people to buy into The One Thing approach as a leader and manager?

A: Earlier in my career, I managed a project where others had to contribute to the project but they were not ultimately accountable to me. To make that work, there’s some salesmanship and political skill required. I think you can always catch more flies with honey. Polite persistence goes a long way on projects.

It’s natural to think about your work with the question, “What’s the win for me?” To really achieve great results, you need to ask two more questions: what’s the win for the organization? and what’s the win for this person? The win may take different forms. For a large project, the win could be helping a person getting promoted. In other cases, the win might be, “You wouldn’t see me dropping by your desk each day asking about the project status.” We’ll have a good laugh at that point and move ahead.

It’s better to ask questions rather than issue orders. For example: what help do you need to get this task done or when should we meet next to discuss this project given the ultimate deadline we have to meet?

If you’re a leader and you want someone to adopt “The One Thing” philosophy, the first step is to ask them to read the book. Alternately, you could have a team meeting to summarize the book and walk people through the ideas. I usually sell the idea by pointing out that YOU can get more done, feel better about what you achieved and then go home and be with your family.

Q: What struggles do people have with adopting “The One Thing” method in their work?

A: Highly detail oriented people sometimes struggle with it because they want to complete each and every task. I’m guilty of this problem sometimes. As the project manager, you can bring clarity to the situation by saying, “This is the number one priority. I understand that you can’t do everything. So you can work on this number one priority. After that gets done, we’ll see what else we can get done.”

Unfortunately, some people will self-sabotage. They’ll bounce between email, Twitter and other activities. In those cases, that issue is really about them. In other cases, the fault lies with the project manager. If you assign too many tasks and fail to make the priorities clear, it can be a deadly recipe for detail oriented people.

When you’re focused on your priorities, you don’t have any regrets. When I go home, I turn my phone off and relax knowing that I achieved my priorities for the day.

Q: How do you manage the challenge of distractions in the workplace? These distractions can make it difficult to make progress on your One Thing.

A: It depends on your context. If you’re in a large office environment, I suggest looking for ways to work in a different location from time to time. For example, can you move to a small meeting room for an hour or two a day to work on your priorities. As a writer, my focus is generally on two core activities: research and writing. If I do those activities on a regular basis, new books will be produced. For most roles, there’s usually a small set of activities you need to master and work on each day to be successful at your work.

Once you know those core responsibilities, there’s two steps to make sure you get those done. First, you need to time block those activities. Second, you need to protect those time blocks. Research has found that if you set a specific plan – at Tuesday at 6am, I will exercise. Once you have that level of detail, you can put that activity on your calendar and protect that time. More details on the research studies on this strategy are noted in the book.

Protecting that time block is the next step. In a “cubicle farm” environment, it’s difficult. The best practice is to put that time block early in the morning. There’s usually that many 8am meetings in most companies so that’s a perfect time to schedule a time block to work on your number one priority.

Take Your Questions From Good To Great: 15 Examples

Ask Better Questions

What questions do you use most often in your work?

You may be focused on squeezing out incremental gains – how can we process 2% more transactions per day through this system? In some cases, that type of question is just right. If you’re working on a banking system that manages two million daily transactions, then incremental gains are valuable. What if your project objective is to create a brand new product? In that case, you need different questions to become more productive. Where do you get started? You need to identify your ineffective questions.

Do You Use These Bad Questions?

Here are some of the bad questions that I see come up in the working world.

1. Who’s your boss?

This is usually a sign that somebody is angry at you and wants to go over your head to lodge a complaint.

2. But how would we pay for that?

This question can be helpful but it is often used as a way to shut down discussions.

3. Couldn’t you just try harder to fix this problem?

Hard work has a role to play. However, if you systematically rely on heroic efforts to get everything done, your organization is dysfunctional.

Fundamentally, those questions don’t prompt meaningful engagement or bring new insight to the table. Now that we have those points out of the way, let’s turn to better questions.

5 Questions To Ask When You Start A Project

Starting a project on the right note is critical. How else will you be able to motivate the team to engage on the project?

1. Why are we doing this project now?

Timing matters! Asking questions like this are one way to boost your business acumen.

2. What is the history related to this project?

Learning from history is a powerful skill. Historical points to explore – are there any other past projects like this? What is the project experience of the person sponsoring the project?

3. Who is the project’s champion and why?

In most large organizations, there is ultimately a single champion, executive or manager who is accountable for the project. If piss off the VP, you’re going to be in trouble even if the project is on schedule.

4. What can I get excited about on this project?

The project team looks to you – the project manager – for leadership. What can you get excited about on the project?

5. How can I better understand the sponsor’s needs and expectations?

Start by finding out how they want to hear from you. Do they want detailed spreadsheets by email or high touch phone calls? At the start of the project, ask how they want to hear from you.

Five Questions To Ask Advice

In project work, you’re constantly doing new activities… And that means you’re probably having to figure out new applications, systems and processes. You can get better support from your peers and mentors if you ask them a few focused questions.

1. What are the most common mistakes you see beginners make?

This question is adapted from Tim Ferriss’s excellent book Tools of Titans. You can apply it to project work in all kinds of ways. For instance: “what mistakes do novices make when it comes to presenting to the management committee?”

2. What resource was most helpful to you in learning this skill?

Even if you have a great mentor, they have limited time and energy to help you. If you’re seeking advice on how to learn a complex skill (e.g. “how do I improve my public speaking skills?), seeking a resource recommendation is the way to go.

3. How can I practice this skill in a low risk fashion?

Low risk practice is essential to developing a skill. As Eduardo Briceño explains in his TED talk How to get better at the things you care about – top performers look for ways to practice and improve. For instance, highly successful comedians are known for trying out new material on small audiences. That way, they will have quality material to present to large audiences.

4. Who can I observe in action to learn how to do this?

For some skills and capabilities, it’s valuable to watch a master at work. I’ve picked up tips and tricks to use Microsoft Excel better by watching others manipulate complex spreadsheets. I’ve also learned some blog writing techniques by studying the work of other highly successful bloggers.

5. Can you give me feedback on this small task or deliverable?

Let’s say you have a presentation to the CEO tomorrow. With the right approach, this presentation has the potential to supercharge your career. For high stakes opportunities like this, ask a mentor if you can practice with them. Remember to ask them to provide feedback and suggestions. Use the Starter Feedback Model as a resource to guide the person in providing useful feedback to you.

Five Questions To Ask For Problem Solving

When you’re leading a project, there is a steady stream of problems. Use these questions to better define the problems and develop solutions.

1. Do we have the facts about this problem?

You may have a vague sense that something is wrong. That’s not enough to take action. You need to gather examples and facts before you make a move.

2. What other ways could we state the problem?

The wording you use to define or describe a problem matters. Let’s say you’re concerned with profits. One way to state the problem is “How can we cut expenses?” A better question might be to ask, “how can we earn more orders from our past customers?”

3. What other causes are at play for this problem?

When a problem occurs, it’s easy to fixate on easy to understand aspects of it. As Taylor Pearson recently wrote, we have a bias toward easy to understand problems and situations. If a problem is easy to measure with an accounting system, it’s easy to focus on financial aspects to a problem. However, fixating too soon on a single cause may lead you down the wrong path.

Resource: Read Pearson’s excellent essay The Illegible Margin: Profiting From The Gap Between The Map And The Territory for more insight on this issue.

4. How could we solve this problem if we have no money available?

Many project problems are easy to solve when you simply spend more money on them. On the other hand, that approach sometimes encourages lazy thinking. Use this question to search for other solutions. For example, rather than hiring an external consultant, could you call 20 people at your company and ask if anyone knows a developer who can help you?

5. What other mental models can we use to solve this problem?

Mental models describe the assumptions, ideas and related concepts we use to look at the world. As James Clear explains, having a variety of mental models available is a key way to boost your problem solving ability.

Resource: To dive further into mental models, read Creating a Latticework of Mental Models: An Introduction from the excellent Farnam Street blog.

Where Can I Learn To Ask Better Questions?

“Questions are your pickaxes. Good questions are what open people up, open new doors, and create opportunities.”

– “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers,” by Tim Ferriss

I love long form podcast interviews because they represent a special opportunity to explore a topic in depth. Here are some podcasts, articles and other resources to help you sharpen your question abilities.

Testing The “Impossible”: 17 Questions That Changed My Life. A powerful article from Tim Ferriss (one of my favorite authors). My favorite question: “What if I did the opposite for 48 hours?”

The 21 Questions I’m Asking Myself This Week. Business writer and consultant Ed Gandia uses a list of questions to reflect on his business and plan next steps.

EconTalk. This long running podcast features in-depth interviews with authors and economists. It’s a great example of how questions and conversation lead to greater insight.

How to Ask Better Questions by Judith Ross. This HBR article focuses on questions from the perspective of managing people.

The Quest to Ask Better Questions. The article puts it simply and well – “Questions are sometimes better than answers”

 

Cut, Cut, Cut: Elimination Strategies To Boost Productivity

start-vs-stop-list

Elimination is an underrated productivity strategy we all need to practice. It’s one of the best ways to eliminate that “crazy busy” feeling that make the week feel like a long slog.

If elimination is such a great strategy, why isn’t it more popular? There’s a few reasons to consider. First, cultural pressure starting in high school (I have to be well rounded to get into college/university with top grades and “extra-curricular activities”!) stresses adding activities as the path to success. Second, you have “people pleasing” behavior: many of us like to make others feel happy by saying yes to new requests. How do we overcome this scenario?

Elimination Fueled Productivity For Individuals

Becoming more productive through elimination is rewarding once you get started. Before you start the elimination process, you need a positive aim.

1. Identify Your #1 Goal

What are you making room for with elimination? To get started, identify your number one goal. You may have multiple goals for the year (I have 10 for 2017). In that case, I encourage you to use the question from “The One Thing” book (see further reading for details).

One Thing Question:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Tip: Do several of your other goals require money (e.g. contribute to investment accounts, take courses, travel)? In that case, your #1 goal will likely involve earning more money.

2. Brainstorm An Elimination List of 10 Ideas

Now that you have a clear goal in mind, it is time to come up with elimination ideas. The focus is on volume, rather than quality. Here are examples that I recently came up with:

1. Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer interest me (use Unroll.me – I recently cut 50+ no longer relevant email subscriptions from my inbox)

2. Throw away 5 items of old clothing that is worn out (makes it easier to assess clothing options)

3. Review current subscriptions: are there magazine subscriptions to eliminate (I find 1-2 per month goes a long way)

4. Automate one bill payment for monthly payment (e.g. my cell phone bill is currently a manual payment)

5. Review recurring meetings on my professional calendar: are there any to eliminate or consolidate?

6. Make a list of monthly reports I produce and check if the audience truly needs them (here’s how to ask that: “What would happen if I stopped delivering this report?”). This method has been a major time saver for me in the corporate world.

7. Review volunteer commitments for value and meaning. Volunteering is worthwhile… However, you need to keep such activities in the context of the rest of your life. For example, if want to deliver a project or program directly then serving on a committee may not be fulfilling.

8. Reduce digital clutter. Earlier this week, I cleaned up my office computer so that there is only one row of icons. It’s a small way to add clarity and order to your world. The same can be said of smart phone apps.

9. Job Responsibility Creep. Over time, many of us take on random “extra duties” at work. Now is the time to look at those and ask yourself if they make sense with your review. For example, maybe you are asked to serve as a subject matter expert on call to other departments but that distracts you from creating code. In that case, use the same process as point 6 above to pursue elimination.

10. Reduce social media time. Social media can be wonderful! However, these services make it easy to lose a whole afternoon (or more) in mindless clicking that does little but add anxiety to your life. If this scenario rings true for you, consider setting schedule boundaries (e.g. no social media after 6pm) to keep these tools in check.

Note: Ask yourself if you can eliminate a task or activity entirely first. If that is not feasible, consider reducing frequency or automation options.

3. Implement 1 Elimination Change Within 24 Hours

Now the rubber meets the road. It’s time to get to action. Review the list of elimination options you identified in the previous step. To get started with the process, choose the easiest one to eliminate (i.e. that takes 15 minutes or less time). If all you need to do is log into a website, this step will be easy.

If your elimination idea is more complex – killing a corporate report – you can still act. How? In 15 minutes, write up what why you want to eliminate the report, who receives it and send a calendar invitation to propose eliminating it.

4. Proactively Schedule Maker Time

Noted investor and essayist Paul Graham draws a distinction between “Manager Time” and “Maker Time” in his classic essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. In project management, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allocating most or all of your energy in the “manager” mode. However, that’s not going to cut it if you want to achieve your goals.

Before you finish this article, take action to put maker time on your calendar. In my case, I recently added Maker Time for Saturdays and Sunday mornings. Why those times? I like to have long stretches of uninterrupted time and the weekends are best for that. There’s no reason you can’t make a similar block on week days.

Further Reading on Productivity & Elimination

To continue your productivity journey of elimination, explore these books and articles. Remember to keep the focus on your purpose. What will you do with the extra time and energy? Apply it to your One Thing goal! (Of course, if you’re burned out from work, rest and relaxation is a great choice as well.)

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Do you want a book length treatment on focusing on what matters to the exclusion of all else? This is the book for you.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s one of the best productivity books I’ve read. I appreciate the care and attention the authors took with research and tactical advice. I hope that a future addition will illustrate the One Thing principle with additional examples and case studies.

How to Say “No” When It Matters Most (or “Why I’m Taking a Long ‘Startup Vacation’”) by Tim Ferriss. Long time readers will know that Tim Ferriss is an inspiration to me (a favorite Christmas present from 2016 was his newest book “Tools of Titans”). In this article, Ferriss explains why he decided to take a ‘vacation’ from startup investing. Here’s what’s most striking about that move – this investing activity is probably one of the most (i.e. 10X-100X returns in some cases) lucrative activities in his career… Yet he decided to call it quits. Read the article for the details and what led to the decision.

Stop Doing Low-Value Work. This Harvard Business Review article by Priscilla Claman defines several circumstances where you have a great opportunity to cut low value work from your plate such as during job transitions.

Things to Stop Doing in 2015. Written by Sarah Green Carmichael and Gretchen Gavett in Harvard Business Review, this article has great suggestions. Stop sitting so much is one of the tips! Fortunately, my office recently upgraded to “stand-sit” desks so I’m well on my way to less sitting.

The Most Popular Project Management Hacks Articles of 2016

2016-year-in-review

A news screen at the gym informed me that there are less than 30 hours left to go in 2016! In that spirit, it’s time for me to write my final article of the year.

I’m going to revisit the most popular articles of the year. All of these articles attracted over 2,000 readers this calendar year. It’s great to see that many articles in the archives continue to attract attention including a few from 2014. I still remember the urge to create the business after reading “The Four Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss for the second time.

As I write this entry, I’m currently reading “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers” by Tim Ferriss. It’s outstanding and one of my favorite Christmas gifts.

1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective Meetings

This is my most popular blog post of all time. It lays out exactly how to get the most out of meetings as an attendee and as the chair person.

I was inspired to write the article as I reflected on a terrible corporate meeting I had one Friday afternoon that just kept going and going!

2. Project Manager Salary: 4 Key Insights To Earn $100,000 Per Year

Many readers are interested in earning more money as a project manager. This article answers tells how to put the odds in your favor to earn $100,000 per year in project management.

Here’s the bad news from the research: you are unlikely to earn over $100,000 until you have ten years of experience. What if you’re determined to get there faster? Well, read the article to find out more!

3. Conflict Management Techniques From the PMBOK Guide

What comes to mind when you think about conflict? For me, the first mental image is war. Fortunately, conflict in the workplace doesn’t take the form of bullets for most of us.

In this article, I explain the fundamental techniques for managing conflicts. As project managers, you are changing  the organization. That will upset some people! That’s why you need to develop conflict management skills.

4. 6 Steps To Successful Vendor Management

As a project manager, you will end up working with vendors many times over the course of your career. Do you know how to work with vendors effectively?

Once you read this article, you will be better equipped to avoid common vendor management mistakes like getting surprised by the use of sub-contractors.

5. How To Build A Checklist In 6 Steps

When it comes to tools and techniques, most of us think about buying a new app or some other piece of technology. That’s not always the right solution however.

The simple checklist is one of the best ways to improve quality and reduce errors. Did you know that many of the world’s best surgeons, nurses and pilots rely on checklists to avoid life threatening mistakes? It’s true!

The best news? You can build a checklist in 6 steps!

6. 51 Training Resources For Project Managers

If you have the PMP certification, you are obligated to earn PDUs. But what will you learn? What resources are available?

Read this resource to discover the wealth of resources available on the Internet. One of my favorite suggestions: #19 (the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen)

7. 10 Books To Become A Better Project Manager

You’re looking for project management books? Glad to see you. Everybody knows about the standard texts in the field like the PMBOK Guide. What do you read next to keep growing?

Dive into this list to expand your skills and horizons in the new year. “The Effective Executive” by Peter F. Drucker is a gem – you can read it multiple times and profit from the effort each time.

Tip: Your public library (especially if you live in great city like Toronto) is a great way to explore books like these for free.

8. How To Improve Quality With Standard Operating Procedures

If you have ever worked at a large company, you have probably encountered standard operating procedures. They’re often mandatory for high risk activities (e.g. working on a nuclear reactor).

Here’s the key – you can write YOUR OWN standard operating procedures. I have created several over the years to improve the quality of financial reports. I can’t recommend the practice highly enough.

9. 6 Success Principles From Elon Musk (PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors)

Reading biographies of successful people offers unique insights on the world. As a long time science fiction fan, I was delighted to learn about the struggle to build SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company.

His thought process and determination to achieve incredible goals like settling Mars are inspiring. Learn more about the methods and mental models Musk uses to achieve his success.

Tip: Musk recommend thinking from first principles, rather than by analogy, to solve complex problems. It’s a harder path to follow because it will be unnatural for many of us but there are great merits in that approach.

10. 16 Podcasts To Grow Your Career In 2016

A recent survey I read claimed that about 1/4 of Americans listen to podcasts regularly. That means millions of people have yet to discover this incredible medium.

Are you tired of TV style “sound bite” interviews? That’s one area where podcasts shine. For example, Russ Roberts, author and economics expert, has published 60+ minute in depth interviews on his podcast EconTalk for a decade.

For details on which podcasts are best to develop your career and get you promoted, check out the article.

11. How To Develop Business Acumen

If you came up through the ranks in a technical or corporate area (technology, engineering, human resources etc), then your business acumen probably has some gaps.

In order to make understand the business decisions being made around you, use this article to develop business acumen.

News Hack: For a quick yet comprehensive briefing on what’s happening around the world, I recommend reading an issue of The Economist. It’s one of the world’s best news magazines.

12. 12 Ways To Use Email Better

To round out the list, let’s work at doing email better. Here’s one principle to start with: make clear requests.

For example, do you want somebody to approve a request? Make it crystal here: “Please approve the attached business plan” or “Please approved the attached project change request as discussed at the governance meeting.”

My First Week With The Productivity Planner

The Productivity Planner

The Productivity Planner

Constraints and systems are an important part of productivity. The assumption that you have infinite time and resources makes it easy to get sloppy and get less done. Unfortunately, some digital tools encourage you to believe that you have unlimited attention and resources to work on your goals.

What if the secret to achieving more of your goals came down to forcing yourself to do fewer, high value tasks?

Experiences With Digital Tools: The Infinite To Do List

Digital tools such as Microsoft Office, Google Calendar, Nozbe and Evernote have all been part of my toolkit. Yet, I find myself using these tools less often for daily task management in recent months. They still play a role. I keep my annual goals in Evernote which I review daily. My Google Calendar is an indispensable tool for setting reminders and managing appointments.

Yet calendars and digital task management tools have one major limitation.

The infinite to-do list.

Let’s break this done.

You can just keep adding tasks to the list until you completely overwhelm yourself. Before you know it, you have 28 tasks planned for the day and then feel frustrated when you complete 11 low value tasks only to live the mission critical task undone.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

One solution is to move to a paper journal for daily tasks. That acts as a constraint and a system to guide your thinking. It’s a powerful idea that I first encountered in Tim Ferriss’s book “The 4 Hour Workweek.” As I recall, he encouraged using 3×5 index cards. I quite like this approach and use it. Yet, it has one significant limitation: index cards are disposable and it is difficult to review them over time.

Further Reading: For more on the merits of systems, reading Taylor Pearson’s excellent essays such as 5 Mental Models To Create Dramatically More Leverage.

Experimenting With The Productivity Planner

Headquartered in Toronto, Intelligent Change is best known for the 5 Minute Journal. As I wrote on Success.com, I believe in the value of keeping a journal as a way to better understand yourself and your goals (How to Get Started on Journaling).

Keeping a journal has many different benefits in business and beyond. I used a food/health journal back in 2012 which was a key part in reducing my weight by over 50 pounds in a six month period. Seeing my activity tracked and knowing that I had to “report to myself” on the journal was helpful.

But I digress. Back to Intelligent Change and their new product, The Productivity Planner.

I was impressed by the 5 Minute Journal so I decided to experiment with the Productivity Planner. On October 31st, I bought a copy of the journal and got to work.  I’ve had a good experience with it over the past few days. Much like the 5 Minute Journal, the Productivity Planner takes only a few minutes to use each day. I tend to write up my plan for day while I have my morning coffee – it is a manageable way to plan the day.

Reasons Why The Productivity Planner Is Great

I found The Productivity Planner a pleasure to use and an excellent way to organize myself to achieve high value tasks.

1. Design.

I appreciate the simple elegant design of the journal in terms of the outside cover and internal layout. As Apple has shown, it’s pleasant to use a well designed product.

2. The Productivity Guide.

Unlike some journals that simply present you with blank pages, the Productivity Planner includes a short book at the beginning to guide you through the process. If you are unfamiliar with productivity research and best practices, it will be especially helpful.

3. Focus on Pomodoro Technique.

Did you know that deliberately taking short breaks helps your productivity? That’s the whole premise behind the Pomodoro Technique. You work for 25 minutes on a single task, then take a 5 minute break. The details are somewhat flexible: John Lee Dumas has a daily ritual that includes an adapted Pomodoro Technique – a 53 minute work session followed by a slightly longer break. On each day’s entry, you estimate how many work sessions

Resource: Curious to learn more about how to use Pomodoro Technique, check out my article “25 Minutes To Increase Productivity.”

4. Daily Focus.

The Productivity Planner encourages you to focus on 3-5 tasks each day. That means you have to take a few minutes to think about which tasks truly matter for achieving your goals. Here’s a hint “Catch on email” has yet to make my daily list (though it might when I get home from a long vacation in December).

This aspect of the journal makes a big difference in daily productivity. Before I commit a task to the journal, I ask myself whether it will matter at the end of the day. It’s a helpful way to prompt reflection as I plan my day.

5. Daily Inspirational Quotes.

I don’t know about you, but I really like to start the day or end the day with an interesting quote. Here’s a quote I picked up this week from the journal: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them” from David Allen (author of Getting Things Done, a classic productivity book)

6. Planning The Week.

I like the single page “plan the week’s most important tasks.” The idea is to answer the question “If I could only get these 5 tasks done this week, would I be satisfied with my progress? In project work, planning a week is usually easy to manage.

7. Looking back – The Weekly Review.

The Weekly Review is one the best ways to stay organized and focused on your priorities. The challenge with a traditional weekly review is that it may feel overwhelming. The Productivity Planner weekly review is a single page. Further, there are good points to guide the process: Weekly Wins, What Tasks Were Not Completed Last Week?, What Have You Learned This Week, Next Week.

Discussion Question For The Comments:

What has been your experience using productivity planning tools like The Productivity Planner?

Nuclear Cleanup To Bridge Upgrades: How Top Projects Get It Done

London Tower Bridge (Pixabay)

London Tower Bridge (Pixabay)

Best practices. World class projects. Top performers.

You hear these words thrown around as you attend conferences and training sessions. Have you ever wondered what top performers in project managers actually do and accomplish?

Through 2016, I have reported on outstanding projects and professionals in the field for ProjectManagement.com. In today’s article, you can find links to those resources all in one place.

From AT&T To Project Consulting Success: A Profile of Frank Saladis, PMI Fellow Profile

While I find methodology and method helpful, I’m often more excited by the people who make projects happen. In PMI Fellow Profile: Frank Saladis, you will learn about how this highly successful project manager built his career. While with AT&T, Saladis started to present at conferences which helped him to launch his career. To get ready for your next conference, read How To Get The Most Value From Conferences In 6 Steps. Saladis also played a key role in starting International Project Management Day over a decade ago, an annual tradition that draws participation from project managers around the world.

University Health Network: Lessons From The Healthcare Sector

Governments, companies and patients around the world want better healthcare services. Project managers have a role to play in making that happen. In this ProjectManagement.com webinar – Lessons From An Award Winning Project – you will learn about the processes and methods used by the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada. I’m especially delighted to report on UHN’s success as I live in Toronto. Adopting a “train the trainer” approach was a key approach on this project. The project also brought people together by enrolling them in a University of Toronto educational program.

How Symcor’s PMO Improved Performance and Client Satisfaction

Do PMOs improve project performance or do they simply add bureaucracy? Symcor’s PMO shows that PMO processes and governance can add value! In my article, Insights from a High-Performance PMO, I explore how the organization improved their results. The PMO takes client satisfaction seriously – Symcor uses multiple surveys to understand their clients and ensure the project is achieving the goal. In addition, Symcor invested in outside assistance to better understand risks when it launched a complex program involving multiple financial institutions. It’s a must read article if you run projects in the financial services industry.

Keeping The Fuel Flowing: Chevron’s Project Success

Sustaining production at a major oil refinery is a tremendous challenge. In Project Profile: How Chevron Sustained Production in California, you will learn about Chrevron’s project success. With a budget over $150 million, the project team had to upgrade equipment at the El Segundo Refinery. This refinery plays a key role in California’s economy: it has over 1,000 employees and is a major supplier of jet fuel to the Los Angeles International Airport. Managing a variety of stakeholder in the state while maintaining an excellent safety record are among the project’s significant achievements.

How to Repair Hundreds of Bridges Under Budget: Lessons from Oregon

Public sector projects and programs are often criticized for waste and poor performance. It doesn’t have to be that way. Oregon’s multi-year program to upgrade and improve hundreds of bridges was achieved on time and under budget.  The program’s approach to building talent in the region and working productively with contractors stand out as highlights. The program also made a great contribution in growing the next generation of talent in the trades and engineers who will keep Oregon’s infrastructure running in the future.

To read more about Oregon’s achievement, read How to Repair Hundreds of Bridges Under Budget: Lessons from Oregon.

For Fun: Infrastructure never gets the love and respect it ought to. For a fun take on this theme, consider the satirical movie trailer for “Infrastructure: The Movie” courtesy of John Oliver. The whole video is great – the trailer starts at around 17:30. “In a world where a few feet of concrete makes the difference between life and death…”

Cleaning Up Nuclear Waste and By-Products

For many years, I have been fascinated by nuclear technology and how it has impacted the world. One of my political science professors in university was an expert of the Cuban missile crisis in fact. But I digress…

While nuclear power has many advantages, it does create dangerous waste and other by-products. Fortunately, the River Corridor Closure Project program has made great progress in cleaning up Washington State. In Lessons from a Successful Nuclear Project, you will learn about the program’s safety program. With a $3 billion dollar budget, the program cleaned up multiple nuclear sites in Washington. Even more impressive, the program had to address poorly documented nuclear sites dating back to the 1940s.

 

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (REVIEW)

Smartcuts By Shane Snow Book Review

Ever since I read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcom Gladwell, I have been fascinated with productivity and success. I recently read Shane Snow‘s book, “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.”

In sum, it is a good book that puts forward compelling principles and provides fascinating stories to support them. I loved reading about the variety of “smartcuts” Snow found in shoe design, space technology, baby incubators and more.

Hacking The Ladder: Using the “Sinatra Principle” To Get Ahead

What comes to mind when you think of the pinnacle of achievement in a profession? You might think about someone who is highly experienced, a person who has climbed the ranks over time. Certainly, that’s one approach to take. Snow presents interesting data from U.S. Presidential history to suggest that paying your dues is not the only way to the top. He found that several Presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy became Presidents with relatively little experience in national politics. How does that work?

They use the “Sinatra Principle” to leverage credibility from another field. Snow is referencing Frank Sinatra’s famous song “New York New York” whose lyrics include “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” In our world, we might say the same thing about working at Google. If Jenny Blake was successful at Google, then we should get her books and programs. In the case of Presidential politics, how does this work? The “outsider” candidates brought credibility and leadership skill from another area (e.g. Eisenhower’s success in the Second World War) and transfer it to the political arena.

Application: How can you reach your goals faster by transferring credibility from one area of achievement to another?

Training With Masters: How To 2X Your Growth Through Mentorship

Getting ahead all by yourself is difficult and rare. Even Vincent Van Gogh had support (and financial assistance) from his brother Theo. In “Smartcuts,” Snow points out the value of learning from masters. It’s an important idea that other authors have also covered – I recall the story of scientist Michael Faraday’s apprenticeship as told in Robert Greene‘s excellent book “Mastery.” Snow takes a different approach here by emphasizing obsessive study. Snow’s research also suggests that organic mentorship efforts tend to be the most successful (i.e. one person reaching out to another without an organization organizing the interaction).

In this chapter, he looks at the rise of noted comedians Louis CK and Jimmy Fallon. As a young man, Fallon was dead set on joining Saturday Night Live. To pursue that goal, he worked with two types of mentor: a traditional, in-person mentor in the form of his manager and a distant mentor, namely studying other comedians such as Adam Sandler. On a related note, it was great to take career insights from comedians. We all hear about start-ups, traditional professionals and CEOs in the business media. Learning principles from a new profession was valuable.

Application: Live mentors and other models are most effective in your growth if you seek them out and model their success. Waiting for your employer to organize mentorship tends to be less successful. In addition, look for mentors in books and history who can inspire you.

Rapid Feedback: Decide How To Use Feedback Effectively.

Consider the difference in practicing a skill by yourself versus getting steady feedback. Which scenario do you think will make the difference in boosting your results? Clearly, feedback makes a difference. Snow pushes beyond that observation to ask how feedback is best used. One approach is to intently observe others fail and draw from that experience. Snow cites research on surgeons who improved after observing medical mistakes:

On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. When they failed [at performing the medical procured], it was because of bad luck. It was hard to see. The patient was unstable. There wasn’t enough time… When doctors failed due to what they perceived as bad luck, they didn’t tend to work any smarter the next time… When someone else fails, we blame his or her lack of effort or ability. For the cardiac surgeons, this made the failure of a colleague quite valuable. Since it was that guy’s fault, fellow surgeons instinctually zeroed in on the mistakes. “I’ll make sure not to do that,” they said subconsciously. And they got better at the surgery.

This principle suggests that the practice of lessons learned have great potential as a feedback mechanism. Building on Snow’s surgeon example, close observation of a failure event makes the difference. I wonder if reading a traditional lessons learned report or end of project report would have the same feedback value.

Application: Observe others around you who practice a similar profession. What mistakes are they making that you can avoid?

Simplicity: Inside An Innovative Solution To Saving Babies

Constraints and creativity have an interesting relationship. If you have endless resources, you may not come up with experimental or breakthrough ideas. In contrast, if increasing the budget by $1 million is simply not available, then you have to find other solutions. In the project world, we’re used to change requests, “gold plating” (i.e. staff adding extra features they believe to be valuable but which are not specified in the project plan) and similar activities. What if you had to achieve results and a higher budget was not available?

That’s the case presented by Snow in this case. The challenge? How to save more premature babies in developing countries? The standard solution in the developed world is to use incubators, which often cost over $20,000 each and require training to use effectively. Initially, Jane Chen’s team looked at cutting costs or making an inexpensive glass box. Those efforts did not lead anywhere. At that point, the team analyzed an incubator at a feature level: what were the features of an incubator which features provided the greatest benefit? Their conclusion: providing consistent warmth was the most valuable feature. This insight led to Embrace, an inexpensive solution that does not require electricity, significant training or a hospital. It has saved many lives.

Curious to know more about the Embrace story? Watch Jane Chen’s TED Talk: A warm embrace that saves lives.

Application: How could you achieve more of your project goals by radically simplifying the project requirements? Consider breaking down your wish list of features and determine which features add the most value.

 

13 Statistics On The State of Work In 2016: Meetings, Productivity & Conflict

office-productivity

What’s happening in the world of work in 2016? To answer that question, I reviewed the U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report from Workfront. Here are some of the highlights from the report. I’ve also provided links to resources to help you become more productive, get better at meetings and get ahead.

Overall Trends For U.S. Office Workers

Here are some of the data points from the survey that stood out to me. I was most surprised by the short lunch breaks that people tend to take. A rest in the middle of the day is a valuable way to refresh yourself and take on more activities in the rest of the day.

  • The top reasons people work according to the report: Pay the bills (76%), mental challenge (27%), fulfill my goals (21%), learn new skills to grow my career (14%).
  • The top motivational factors at work according to the survey:  Chance for bonus and/or higher salary (29%), appreciation/recognition from superiors (22%), promotions and/or opportunities to advance my professional skills (18%), reaching or exceeding goals (14%)
  • 45.1 hours. That’s the average amount of hours worked for office workers according to the survey (a small increase over 2015)
  • 9-11am: Time period reported as being the most productive. In contrast, the least productive time period is 3-5pm.
  • Email and spreadsheets are the most popular work tools for office workers

Trends For Project Managers

What findings does the report have for the work of projects? Here are four data points from the survey.

Meetings are an important tool in the project manager’s toolbox. Yet, many people perceive meetings as wasteful. Given this finding, it is more important than ever to design and run effective meetings that make decisions and move projects forward.

  • Keep meetings to a minimum. — 59% of U.S. workers surveyed said wasteful meetings are the biggest hindrance to productivity. For project managers looking to stay on top of timelines and get the most quality work out of their team members, it’s important to know which meetings are necessary and how you can execute meetings that don’t waste your team’s time. Use meetings to discuss resolutions and next steps in the project, not rehash tasks or processes that are already known or completed.

Email is a highly popular and flexible tool. Yet, poor email habits slow many of us down. Part of the problem is a lack of productivity and task management system.

  • According to the State of Work report, 43% of survey respondents said answering and organizing email is a major distraction from assigned projects, and I think we all feel that pain. Project managers should work with the decision-makers in their department to identify useful tools and resources that can bring collaboration and communication into a central hub. This lets email act as the venue for immediate needs or new interactions with external sources (a necessary evil), and the collaboration tool is used for all comments, input and revisions to actual work. In addition being a collaboration and communications hub, it can also be used to track team bandwidth and resource management.

There is a major productivity improvement opportunity available. Consider the following observation:

  • 92% of survey respondents said they feel productive at their jobs. Given the fact that only 39% of our time is spent on our primary job duties, that’s a good sign project managers are succeeding at guiding team members in the right direction through what might be heavy-workload weeks. However, it may also mean teams are perceiving a higher level of productivity than they are actually performing. Taking the time to evaluate processes, tools and traditional components to project management may pay off in output and avoiding burnout in the long run.

Power tools for PM success —

  • 70% of workers either already use a project management tool or would like to. For any size team, a project management tool has become as vital as a computer. Even for a sole proprietor, logging hours and assets against that work is made so much more efficient through a project management tool. Every team has different needs, and it’s important to reflect inward before researching the available tools that meet those needs. Project managers are the drivers of those conversations, as they know their team’s challenges and talents, preferences and dislikes better than anyone else in the company.

Building A Vendor Management Office: Lessons From Insurance And Airports

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Managing vendors and procurement activities effectively has never been more important. Why? The drive to outsource activities and build more complex products means you need contributions from beyond your organization.

Alas, project management isn’t like Amazon. There’s no “one click” buy button or overnight shipping when you’re building a bridge, submarine or a CRM implementation. You need a more sophisticated approach. If you’re just getting started, read 6 Steps To Successful Vendor Management. To take your vendor management approach to the next level, stay with me.

This week, I attended an session on “Building A Vendor Management Office,” hosted by Fasken Martineau, a Canadian law firm. It was a helpful session with some great war stories. In this article, you will learn how two organizations in very different industries improved their vendor management practices. For more events like this, look into joining the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals (IAOP).

Economical Insurance: Vendor Management & Transformation

Economical Insurance was founded in 1871. Today, it is one of Canada’s leading property and casualty (P&C) insurance companies. That long history brings certain assets such as long standing customer relationships and a well-known brand. However, the company has also accumulated vendor relationships that needed to be revised due to a new strategy. Economical has committed to success in the digital world and the vendor management strategy has to support that goal.

Innes Dey, Senior Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer at Economical Insurance,  presented his experience. I appreciate his efforts especially considering he had a difficult cold!

  • Purpose: The company’s drive to modernize vendor management is part of a broader transformation agenda to ‘demutualize’ the organization. In a mutual structure, the organization is owned by employees and policy holders. It’s a rare structure but it is still used in some cases. Vanguard, a major investment firm known for offering index funds, is owned by its policyholders.
  • The Limits of Contracts. Be wary of assuming that a good contract is enough – it’s also important to have good people to work with at the vendor. After all, if the vendor team is rude, unprofessional or unresponsive, then you will not achieve value from your spend.
  • Engage in “productive overlap” with staffing. By partially overlapping responsibilities between staff, you can have support and collaboration. This is a great management principle. It also means that people can go on vacation without worrying that a critical process will fail.
  • Maintain Internal Unity When Dealing With Vendors. Innes  made the interesting comment that vendors are “skilled at exploiting disorganized clients.” If your executives are getting wined and dined by vendors, the vendor management office needs to know about it.
  • Be wary of conflicts of interest. Some consultants have business relationships with other organizations that may influence their recommendations. These relationships become problematic when YOU are unaware of these interests.
  • Staff Up To Achieve Value. If your organization is managing millions of dollars in vendor relationships, make the case for full time vendor management staff. Managing seven figure contracts with IBM, Deloitte and other large organizations requires dedication.

Greater Toronto Airports Authority: Managing Vendors & Becoming The Best Airport In The World

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is responsible for operating Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport. John Alexis and Angella Dikmic presented observations from their journey on improving vendor management. While the GTAA presentation focused on IT and technology vendors, there’s no reason why these frameworks cannot be applied to other functions.

  • Understand Your Reality. The first step is to create a central repository of contracts. This point is especially important if your organization has multiple contracts with a vendor. Multiple contracts sometimes lead to problems like different pricing, payment terms and conditions.
  • Set Your Vendor Management Goals. Initially, the GTAA approach focused on cost reduction. Delivering cost reduction and cost avoidance to the organization was essential to win support from executives. Over time, relationship management and risk management have become more important.
  • Classify Your Vendors And Govern Accordingly. As you create a governance program, it’s important to apply different levels of governance depending on cost, risk and importance. Remember that a small spend vendor may merit a “Tier 1” approach if they provide enterprise critical services.
  • Plan Your Exit. Every business relationship comes to a conclusion at some point. If you don’t define how that will end, you could be in for a world of hurt. The speakers shared a story from another organization that underscores this point. A client ended a relationship with a buyer and asked for their data back. The vendor printed the data on paper and delivered it (ignoring the client’s request for the data in digital form). The result? Many months of client time spent typing up the data!
  • Be Part of the Contract Discussion. For large contracts, it is vital for the vendor management office to be part of the discussion. Leaving them out will make running a long term relationship with the vendor much more difficult. You don’t want to land in a situation where you are stuck with a painful, complicated contract.
  • Leverage Organizational Change To Introduce a VMO. There’s a saying in politics – ‘never waste a crisis.’ In the business context, the same idea applies. With the GTAA, they had a major contract with an IT firm close to expiration. Rather than simply go through business as usual and renew, GTAA management used this change as an opportunity to revamp their entire approach to vendors.
  • Conduct Regular Satisfaction Surveys. The GTAA regularly conducts vendor and customer satisfaction surveys to detect issues and areas for improvement. As vendors become more important in delivering your value chain, this is an excellent proposal to use. I’ve recently used Survey Gizmo to conduct surveys and it has been helpful.
  • Use Recurring Meetings And Calibrate The Detail Accordingly. The GTAA uses a series of recurring meetings with different audiences to execute vendor governance. For example, executives are briefed annually on the top vendors. Other vendors with a lower impact can be managed with a monthly meeting focused on operations.