How Microsoft, Toronto Hydro and Infrastructure Ontario Do Knowledge Transfer

Image Credit: Pixabay.com
Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Equipping people with the right knowledge and skills to achieve success matters. Baby boomer retirements, employee turnover and economic evolution are driving the need for knowledge transfer. In this article, I will share insights I learned from attending a PMI Southern Ontario chapter event called, Knowledge Transfer: If We Only Knew What we KNOW. With perspectives from Infrastructure Ontario, Toronto Hydro and Microsoft, there was much to learn from the presentations and discussions.

Why I Attended The Event

I found the event helpful and interesting as a fresh perspective. As the event was organized by the PMI-SOC Government Community, most of the attendees came from government and public sector organizations. Even though my work does not involve government or infrastructure projects, I found there was much to learn from attending. While focusing on your own industry makes sense, set some time aside to explore new perspectives. If my experience is any guide, you have a great deal to learn from other industries.

The Case for Knowledge Transfer: The Project Management Institute Perspective

Evan Zelikovitz, from PMI, shared great insights on the value of knowledge transfer and how it impacts project success. He pointed out that high performing organizations tend to have an excellent process for knowledge transfer. Unfortunately, PMI research has also found that one third of professionals are reluctant to share knowledge at work. This disengaged group poses a risk to our success and serves as a cautionary tale for our success. Dorie Clark (How Sharing Can Transform Your Company and Your Life) and Keith Ferrazi (“To Be Known, Or Unknown: Share your expertise with the world to raise your profile“) point out that sharing knowledge is a great way to build a professional reputation. Refusing to share knowledge is rarely a good idea for your career or your projects.

Resource: The PMI Pulse of the Profession annual report shows how project managers, executives and others view project success and related points.

Delivering Trains, Hospitals and More On Time: The Infrastructure Ontario Perspective

Delivering large construction projects is a key part of the mandate for Infrastructure Ontario (IO). Derrick Toigo presented on the IO approach to projects and continuous improvement. I learned that the IO procurement process is iterative – requirements are revised based on feedback from contractors and other stakeholders. A recent lesson learned from IO concerns the UP Express – a new train service between Toronto Pearson and Union Station. In brief, there was a technology problem concerning door opening and closing procedures. Simplifying the technology involved with this process led to a better outcome. I was also intrigued by the fact that IO has a standing continuous improvement committee to ensure that lessons learned are sought and implemented.

Resource: Read about Infrastructure Ontario’s project track record – read about it in the Canadian Business Journal. The organization has an impressive track record in delivering projects on time. Given the complexity and budgets (“$50 million” is a small budget for this organization) involved, there is much to learn from their example.

Keeping The Lights On In Canada’s Largest City: Lessons From Toronto Hydro Model

Sam Sadeghi did outstanding work in explaining the Toronto Hydro approach to knowledge transfer. For readers unfamiliar with the organization, Toronto Hydro was established in 1911 and supplies electricity to over 2.5 million people in Toronto. Sadeghi’s role at Toronto Hydro is to lead the Program Delivery Group and the groups`s $450 million portfolio for the organization. The urgent need to replace aging and obsolete infrastructure translates to major expansion in project spending. In contrast, ten year ago, Toronto Hydro’s budget for projects was around $100 million.

In Sadeghi`s group, knowledge transfer is a vital process for several reasons. First, there is a major experience gap in the organization between relatively new staff (i.e. under five years of experience) and long term staff (i.e. over fifteen years of experience). In addition to staff changes from promotions and turnover, Toronto Hydro staff are engaged in hazardous work. Knowledge transfer is a key strategy that Sadeghi uses to reduce the risks involved in electrical work. The Toronto Hydro approach uses an on-boarding plan where new staff are guided through a process that lasts up to a year. This process includes both “hard knowledge” (e.g. how to plan and forecast projects) and “soft knowledge” (e.g. assistance in establishing influence and communication with other units).

Sadeghi also did well to point out one major caveat with knowledge transfer – that it may discourage innovation and improvement. Knowledge transfer efforts do assume that existing practices are valid and worth transferring. Actively requesting new ideas from new hires to your department is one way to limit the damage. You could also host a `Fail Fest` event – a practice used by several organizations including NASA – to emphasize the limits of current practices and the need to find improvements.

Knowledge Management Tools & Processes: The Microsoft Perspective

Featuring a demonstration of Sharepoint Online, the Microsoft presentation was interesting. Ketyurah Pinto and Shawn McIntyre shared insights on the Microsoft approach to knowledge and how they use their own products to facilitate this process. Employee performance at Microsoft includes “how did you help others achieve success.” That is an excellent approach to ensure that supporting others through knowledge transfer is rewarded. The presentation also featured a demonstration of Sharepoint Online called “Campus” which is used by Microsoft Consulting Services. It was fascinating to see how Microsoft manages projects and knowledge. The organization encourages and facilitates producing and reusing intellectual property across projects.

Further Reading & Resources For Knowledge Transfer

Use the following resources to continue your learning for knowledge transfer, knowledge management and related topics. Regarding technology, I have good experience with Evernote and Sharepoint. That said, simply choosing a technology is only one small part of the knowledge experience. Several of the presenters referred to cases where knowledge sharing exercises failed to produce value because there were not effective supporting practices and habits to support technology and tools.

The Value of a Knowledge Process By Matt Alderton. A PMI resource that looks at the supporting processes related to using and sharing knowledge.

Motivate Your Team to Share Lessons Learned By Kelly Warmington, PMP. Recent research has found that one third of professionals do not want to share knowledge. Learn how to overcome this challenge using this article`s ideas.

 

6 Steps To Successful Vendor Management

Contract

Are you making the best purchases for your organization? How do you know if you are getting the best deals or receiving what you signed up for?

With effective vendor management, you can address these questions. As outsourcing continues to grow in popularity, these skills will become more valuable. Why? When a vendor plays a key role in your production and operations, you cannot survive without them. Imagine what would happen to the Detroit auto makers if their auto part suppliers experienced strikes or were otherwise unable to deliver? It would take a matter of days for that disruption to undermine the entire operation.

For purposes of this article, there is one assumption to keep in mind. We will be dealing with significant suppliers who either have significant spending ($1 million annually or more) or who play a critical role in the company. Applying this process to occasional small purchases generally does not make sense. This approach also assumes that you have specialized support available (e.g. legal advice) regarding contracts.

1. Develop vendor management strategy

As Stephen Covey wrote, “begin with the end in mind.” The first point to consider is how your approach will align with the organization’s strategy. For example, if your organization’s emphasizes safety and reliability (e.g. you run a power generation company), then that principle will guide your approach. Other strategy points to consider include: your budget, high level market research and determining user requirements.

Tip: You could use the user stories approach to start the conversation around user requirements.

2. Create vendor selection criteria

Deciding in advance how you will make your vendor selection is important because it reduces bias. The selection criteria used will be directly influenced by the overall strategy decided above. Leading organizations tend to use a scorecard or points system regarding criteria. Out of 100 points, 10 points can be assigned for industry awards, 30 points for pricing, 10 points for prior experience with your firm and so forth. The weighting system you use will reflect both your goals and understanding of what the market can provide.

3. Create a bid document

For large purchases and vendor relationships, the typical process is to use a “RFx” document to summarize your organization’s needs and seek bids. The three most common type of bid documents are:

  • RFQ (Request for Quote): this mechanism is mainly used for commodity purchases where price is the most important or sore criterion. I have seen RFQs for carpet in office buildings.
  • RFI (Request for Information): this process is used to obtain information from the market and support internal planning. An RFI will likely lead to a RFP in many cases.
  • RFP (Request for Proposal): this document describes a business problem or need and asks for vendors to propose a solution. Calibrating a RFP to the right level of detail is vitally important. If the document lacks details, you will receive proposals with unrealistic pricing. On the other hand, if the RFP is too detailed, you run the risk of narrowing the marketplace to a few or only one vendor.

Tip: Want to see what RFPs look like? The U.S. government runs FBO.gov where companies can bid for government procurements. At the time of this writing, there are over 21,000 items listed. The sheer variety of RFPs is interesting: Aircraft Wash Equipment (U.S. Air Force), Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System (TTWCS) Parts Manufacturing (U.S. Navy) and High Performance Accelerometers for Space (U.S. Air Force)

4. Evaluate offers and select suppliers

If your bid documents are clear and present a clear business opportunity, you will have the good fortune to receive a variety of bids. It may be tempting to automatically choose the bid with the lowest price at this stage (especially if that presents a “win” for your department compared to the status quo).

By using the selection criteria you developed earlier in the process, you are more likely to make a strategic selection that will be satisfactory for the long term.

5. Negotiate the contract

At this stage, many companies focus their efforts on a single vendor. For high value vendor relationships, taking the time to negotiate a comprehensive contract makes sense. For context, I have seen public companies take several months to complete the negotiation process.

Tip: For IT services and providers, current hot topics for contracts including managing cybersecurity risk and addressing the use of sub-contractors.

6. Manage the vendor relationship

At last, you have a signed contract! Ready to move on? Unfortunately, that’s where many companies make a major mistake. Actively managing the vendor relationship yields a number of benefits including fulfilling internal audit requirements, finding ways to reduce costs and improving quality.

Here are two practical ways to manage the vendor relationship. First, make use of clearly defined “KPIs” (key peformance indicator) reports to assess vendor success. Second, schedule recurring meetings to discuss issues – positive and negative – with the vendor. By developing an effective relationship model, the vendor receives the full spectrum of feedback rather than only hearing about problems.

Further Resources For Vendor Management

The six step process outlined in this article is a starting point to guide buyers through the vendor management process. Here are additional resources to consider as you develop your process.

  • PMBOK Guide. The Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide provides a useful framework of inputs, processes and outputs for vendor management. The PMBOK Guide refers to these activities under the heading of procurement management.
  • Institute for Supply Management (ISM). I first heard about the ISM through their reports (“ISM Report on Business”) which are often cited in the news as an important economic indicator. The Institute also has publications and certification programs for seeking greater education in managing suppliers.
  • Supplier metrics that matter (Supply Business). Published in 2005, this article remains useful to deepen your thinking on metrics. Jonathan Hughes makes a great point that traditional metrics have several flaws including a lack of connection to the organization’s goals and no connection to innovation.

 

How To Become Successful With Toastmasters

Robert Kennedy Speech
Image Credit: Robert Kennedy Speech by WikiImages (Pixabay.com)

 

Public speaking skills are the hallmark of many successful leaders, managers, executives and entrepreneurs. Yet, the practice fills many people with fear and uncertainty. It doesn’t have to be that way! Learn how to rapidly develop your confidence and competence in public speaking with Toastmasters.

Key Facts About Public Speaking and ToastMasters

Given the challenges and benefits of Toastmasters, you might think that membership is highly expensive. At the time of this writing, an annual membership costs less than $100. Compared to many other organizations, that is a bargain! Affordability is only one reason to consider Toastmasters. The organization’s educational materials and supportive culture are also very helpful. The opportunity to give short speeches and presentations surrounded by people who give you encouragement and useful feedback is one of the top benefits of participating in Toastmasters.

My Toastmasters Experience

Several years ago, I joined a company sponsored Toastmasters club. I joined the club because I wanted to develop my skills and expand my internal network at the company. The club I joined had been in service for over ten years. That long history meant a robust leadership – every leadership role was filled. Even better, average attendance at club meetings was a dozen people or more. The club staff did good work in welcoming both as a guest and a new member. Over the course of a year, I gave ten speeches and completed the Competent Communication program. A few years later, I still remember two speeches with pride: a speech about a successful negotiation  I led with my Internet service provider and one about what I learned from the book Decisive.

How To Develop Your Career With Toastmasters in 6 Steps

As the research at the top of this article shows, there are many benefits to developing your public speaking and presentation skills. While you can study presentation technique to a degree by reading books and observing great presenters, there is no substitute for personal experience. Use this process to build your public speaking skills.

1. Locate A Club Near You

Many cities and towns have multiple Toastmasters clubs so you are likely to find a club that suits your location and schedule needs. In fact, many Fortune 500 companies have in-house ToastMasters clubs including Apple, Disney, Google, Microsoft, and Bank of America. I joined a corporate club and had a great experience but that is certainly not your only option. For example, the New York City area has over 200 clubs (the majority of these are open clubs that anybody can join). Over in the UK, London has approximately 60 clubs. San Francisco, CA has over 100 clubs.

Tip: Use the Find A Club tool on the Toastmasters International website to locate in your areas. You can also use the search tool to find clubs that with meetings that suit your calendar (e.g. find clubs that meet on Saturdays).

2. Attend A Club Meeting As A Guest

Most Toastmasters clubs permit guests to visit their clubs once or twice as a guest. As a guest, you have the opportunity to see the club in action, meet members and talk with the club’s leaders. If you are looking into several clubs, I recommend attending two sessions to gain a better understanding of how they work.

Tip: Ask a club leader about the club’s history and any special events coming up. For example, the area may have a humorous speech competition coming up – a fun way to develop your speaking skills.

3. Join A Club

If the club makes a good impression, it is time to join! You can join Toastmasters online or speak with one of the club’s leaders to confirm the process. If you are unsure about whether the organization is for you, membership is generally offered on a six month basis.

4. Deliver A “Table Topics” Speech

Many Toastmasters clubs encourage their members to deliver short (60 seconds or less) remarks during meetings. These short speeches are designed to help you think on your feet as you only have a minute or so to prepare. Delivering one of these speeches is a great way to get your feet wet.

5. Obtain the “Competent Communicator” Manual

Toastmasters offers a range of manuals and programs to help people develop communication and leadership skills. An excellent entry point is the Competent Communicator manual (your club may provide you with a free copy – ask the club before you buy your own). With this educational program, you will deliver ten speeches to your club. Each speech is a project that develops different speaking skills. Some of the skills you will learn include research, speech organization, vocal variety and using visual aids.

Tip: Review Toastmasters Speech Series: Your Guide to the First 10 Speeches by Andrew Dlugan for an introduction to the Competent Communicator program.

6. Deliver Your First Speech

Why not speak about your career development and lessons learned? You could also give a speech about stress management techniques. Remember to practice your speech at home a few times before you speak at the club.

Tip: Feedback on your speaking is a key benefit of Toastmasters. Look for specific feedback you can use to improve your speaking.

Further Reading and Resources For Public Speaking

Public speaking and communication skills have been the subject of study and analysis by many experts. Here are a few additional resources you can use to build up your skills. For the best results, put these ideas into action with actual presentations.

 

How To Improve Performance With User Stories

Image Credit: Story by 742680 (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Story by 742680 (Pixabay.com)

User stories are a popular agile method to develop requirements and help project teams achieve customer satisfaction. Instead of abstract technical details, user stories put the human user or consumer of the project front and centre. In this article, you will learn how to develop effective agile user stories and how to use them in projects. Let’s dive in and explore how to make the most of this new technique.

What Is An Agile User Story?

An agile user story describes a user accomplishing their goal rather than the technical details of how a system works. Typically agile user stories use a three part structure that combines a goal with steps. Some authors use the term “user story” and “use case” in the same sense. I see the many difference in the fact that user stories emphasize a person’s interaction. Here are a few examples of agile user stories that could be used for various projects.

  • E-Commerce: As an sporting goods customer, I want to order replacement clothes easily so I can be ready for my next game on the weekend.
  • Mobile Banking: As a busy professional, I want to make quick payments on my smart phone during commutes so I can relax at home.
  • Cell Phone Service: As a business traveler, I want to have steady service during travel so that I can focus on business.
  • Online Map Service. As a tourist, I want to quickly navigate through new cities so I can enjoy myself.

As the examples above show, there are common patterns in user stories. First, they are short (the examples above are a single sentence). Second, they describe a specific action that is easy to visualize and understand. Third, the examples conclude with a benefit statement. These three components help developers, project managers and others involved in the project easily get into the shoes of the end user.

Agile User Stories Vs Traditional Requirements

Agile user stories emphasize the customer and the benefit they are seeking to achieve. Here are some of the advantages of using user stories to supplement or replace traditional business requirements. Consider the following benefits of using agile user stories on your projects.

1. Set Better Priorities. In project planning, users and customers will typically ask for a large number of requirements. By asking for this input in user story form, it is easier to discern the true priorities.

2. Guide Project Decision Making. Efforts to collect requirements are never perfect and change is part of the project management profession. With robust user stories to refer to, the project team will have a reference point to guide their decision making.

3. Improved Technical Flexibility. User stories focus on outcomes rather than means. This emphasis helps the project team imagine a variety of technical solutions instead of using familiar technology alone.

While user stories are an exciting concept, they may not be suitable for every situation. The traditional requirements process is helpful for a number of situations such as regulatory projects. If a government agency issues new regulations with firm deadlines, there is relatively limited scope for imagination. In those situations, on time and precise delivery is valuable. In addition, technical requirements may need to be developed if the project team includes third parties who are far removed from the end user or customer. In those cases, detailed requirements will help

5 Ways To Improve Performance With User Stories

Let’s look at a few specific situations where creating and using user stories improves project performance.

1. Increase Customer Involvement. Scott W. Ambler recommends asking users or customers to write user stories rather than developers. That is excellent advice! For that exercise to have value, the project team will introduce and explain the user story concept first.

2. Analyze User Stories For Supporting Requirements. Earlier in this article, we had a mobile banking user story. This story needs to be further developed and refined into specific features and service levels for the project team. For example, the project manager may include a capacity requirement (e.g. “the application will process 1 million transactions per hour without errors”). The testing lead may include several testing scenarios (e.g. test using three different smartphones, test using different browsers and other cases).

3. Validate The User Story With A Prototype. The Lean Startup concept created by Eric Ries is a great way to test early and test often. Seek to create a simple prototype of the product and ask users to attempt to use it. In most situations, you will receive more useful feedback when users have a working prototype to use.

4. Manage Scope By Using A Small Focus. As the INVEST model for user stories states, a key best practice is to write a user story as a small concept. Keeping the user story brief makes it possible to build out the user story in a short period of time.

5. Focus on testable concepts. As we learned from the scientific method, the ability to test an idea is valuable. By developing a user story that is easy to test, the project team will improve performance.

Agile User Stories Resources

The user story concept in agiles dates back to the late 1990s. You can continue your training in this topic by exploring the following resources.

User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn

Published in 2004, this book provides an overview of the user stories concept. The book’s examples and author come from the software industry. The book also covers how to use and develop user stories for acceptance testing. This book is best suited for project managers who work on software development projects.

Doing Features and User Stories the Right Way by Magda Sitarek (Netguru)

In this blog post, we learn best practices from Netguru. My favorite insight from the article: “We always urge others to remember that user stories are not a contract – they are usually hints or reminders of features for the team and clients to negotiate and collaborate to clarify the details when the time of development nears.”

Agile Requirements: How to Write Good User Stories (YouTube Video)

In this 9 minute video – part of a series of videos – you will gain further guidance on how to write a user story. The video builds on concepts from agile, scrum and the International Institute of Business Analysis.

You Didn’t Ask For That – Prevent Project Failure With Better Requirements

Image Credit: Boy by Servicelinket (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Boy by Servicelinket (Pixabay.com)

Without clear requirements, projects fail. Most of us know that principle. Yet, poorly thought out requirements continue to be a problem. Incomplete requirements mean upset customers, expensive change requests and delays.

Here are a few different scenarios where projects fail due to poor requirements:

  • No Quality Requirement. Professionals generally appreciate the importance of quality. Yet, there are widely divergent quality definitions. Your project might adopt a Six Sigma style quality definition: “3.4 defects per million opportunities.” You may also choose to use a proxy approach such as a customer satisfaction survey. Assumptions about the definition and measurement of quality is a major problem.
  • Ineffective Reporting or Incomplete Data Requirements. Reports serve several useful purposes in projects. For example, reports show how decisions were made and KPI (key performance indicator) reports help managers and executives gain understanding over the project. Keep in mind that reports can be both a deliverable (i.e. you are building a system that has reporting capacity) and a project management tool.
  • Incomplete Training, Documentation and Change Management. In the excitement to build a new product or service, the supporting deliverables such as training and change management are sometimes forgotten. I can think of several open source software applications that fell short on this criteria. The lack of training and documentation means users will not get maximum value from the project.

Why “Gather Requirements” Is Doomed To Fail

Many business analysts describe their project role as “gather requirements,”: this phrase has a fatal flaw. Why? Gathering implies that requirements are simply out there in the open and need to be picked up. Instead, you have people to work with. At a minimum, you have a project sponsor and users. They may have some big picture ideas about the project’s purpose – “upgrade to Windows 10” or “integrate a new acquisition .” That’s a starting point. Let’s go further to develop requirements by looking at strategy and problems.

Three Ways To Discover Real Develop Requirements: Strategy And Problems

There are two approaches to developing requirements: top down strategic and bottom up studies. A highly effective project will combine both approaches. The top down approach looks at the organization’s strategy and seeks to map the project to that strategy. The bottom up approach looks at the current state to find problems. Here are some examples of how to apply this discovery process.

  • Analyze The Organization’s Strategy. In this approach, you simply read the organization’s strategy document and look for ways to map it to the project purpose. The challenge with this approach is bridging the gap between a CEO’s vision and reality on the ground. The strategy conversation provides another approach.
  • Have A Strategy Conversation With The Project Sponsor. Rather than starting at the very top of the organization, the strategy conversation connects the project to the project sponsor. That means sitting down with the Vice President, COO or or the manager who is sponsoring the project and asking them about their goals. The organization’s overall goal may be to define the customer experience. A VP’s goal might be to define customer experience by providing best in class system reliability. If you have a good relationship with the sponsor, you might consider asking them about their performance goals and how you can help them to look good.
  • Look For Problems In Existing Data and Reports. Many large organizations have a wealth of reports and data available that attracts little interest or use. Early in the project, you can ask your analysts to review this data and look for the most commonly reported problems. For example, the organization may have customer satisfaction survey results, system reports and/or a lessons learned database from past projects. All of these are useful resources to review.

These three processes offer a way to discover problems that people in the organization care about solving. Delivering against these requirements will help you achieve the Holy Grail of project work: customer satisfaction. After all, if you go over budget but the customer is happy with you, then you can still achieve success. On the other hand, if you deliver on time and on schedule but fail to meet the customer’s real requirements, your reputation will suffer.

Further Reading On Requirements and Business Analysis

This article draws on my professional experience and extensive study of the field. To continue your development, here are other resources to continue your professional development. I emphasize innovation because it is exciting and bound to add energy to your project.

The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman

IDEO is a legendary industrial design company known for creating new products and experiences. IDEO’s portfolio includes Apple’s first mouse, the Holiday Inn Express Europe, and  education technology. Whether your project is about creating a brand new product or updating an existing product, this book offers fresh approaches. Kelley shares ten personas that professionals can use to improve innovation. Two of my favorite personas include the anthropologist and the the storyteller (“the Storyteller captures our imagination with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work, and innovation”)

Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry by David Robertson and Bill Breen

I learned about David Robertson‘s work and research on LEGO and innovation at the PMI Global Congress 2015 in Orlando, FL. What’s the connection to business requirements and success? In my view, much of LEGO’s recent success and innovation concerns understanding the need for story and narrative. For example, LEGO created a highly successful series of toys and products related to Star Wars and the Lord of The Rings (as well as LEGO developed stories). Rather than focusing on technical requirements like brick size and design, LEGO discovered the true requirement – toys that connect with powerful stories.

Business Analysis Fundamentals with Haydn Thomas (Lynda.com Course)

When the Toronto Public Library announced access to Lynda.com, I was excited to get started here and earn some PDUs. I started off with this two hour online course provides an excellent introduction to the art and science of business analysis. I like the instructor’s analogy of the project manager as the ship’s captain and the business analyst as the navigator.

 

3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager

Image Credit: Compass by PDPics (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Compass by PDPics (Pixabay.com)

Strategy is an exciting term! For me, it conjures two different images. First, I imagine a 1940s era meeting room filled with generals and admirals as they plan the next stage of the war. Second, I imagine meetings between CEOs and consultants from firms such as McKinsey. There’s just one problem with those images. Those images imply that strategy is owned by those at the top of the organization and specialized consultants.

Why Strategy Matters

As leaders in today’s environment, there are several trends and challenges that make it more difficult to maintain a strategic view.

  • The Service Provider Challenge. According to The CIO Dilemma by Gil Press “39% of participants in this year’s survey say IT is still viewed as a cost center within their organiza­tion, essentially flat from 2013. And while the number of CIOs saying they have a service provider relationship with their Line-of-Business (LOB) colleagues jumped from 20 percent globally last year to 33 percent in 2014… that’s mixed news at best. Service providers follow strategies defined by others.” While there is a place to be a follower, we may reasonably expect more from CIOS and other executives.
  • The Regulatory Burden. 78% of CEOS are concerned about over-regulation according to PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey. Complying with regulations takes resources away from other activities that your organization may wish to pursue. Fortunately, there is a silver lining for project managers – many project managers have found opportunities in regulatory project management.
  • Developing People and Leadership Are Top Challenges. A 2015 Conference Board study of nearly 1,000 CEOs found that talent, developing leaders and labour market matters were a top consideration for leaders. This challenge encourages all of us to use training resources to develop our skills and grow our value.

As you plan your way for the final months of 2015 and beyond, it is time to become a strategist.

3 Ways To Become A Strategic Contributor

Developing your strategic mind takes practice and study: do not expect immediate success. Remember what Will Rogers said, “”Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” The same is true in developing your strategic approach as a professional project manager.

1. Observe The Questions Executives Ask

Executives in your organization carry significant responsibilities and risk. They could try to reduce that risk by spending more and more time collecting information. Before long, an executive will hit a wall on how much more time they can dedicate to work. What’s the solution? There is no single silver bullet. One important tool to master is the art of asking strategic questions.

Examples:

  • How does this proposed product align with our brand?
  • Who can we partner with to achieve this goal?
  • Who supports this idea and who is against it?

Resource: For more ideas and instruction on the art of asking important questions, I recommend “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions” by John C. Maxwell. I have been listening to this book as an Audible.com audio book and it is fantastic.

2. Say No To Low Value Projects

In  3 ways to advance your PM career now on CIO.com, Brad Egeland shared his advice, “Don’t accept “all” challenges. Don’t be the garbage collector of new projects.” That’s an excellent point to keep in mind as you work to become strategic. Choosing to turn down certain opportunities and projects is an important way to protect your focus and your personal brand. If you are working on developing yourself as an expert in Microsoft products, taking on a high profile project involving Oracle may not make sense.

Note: If you are new to the workforce or working to reinvent yourself, it pays to take a different approach. In those situations, you need as many projects and new skills as you can handle.

3. Work To Align With The Organization’s Strategy

In many situations, your approach to strategy will be formed and guided by those who are above in the organization chart. For example, a captain in the navy will plan a mission to align with the direction set out by the admirals. In the corporate world, most project managers face a similar challenge of aligning their work to existing strategy. How exactly can you pursue alignment?

  • Read the organization’s published strategy document. This is the foundation of your strategic understanding. Be prepared for business buzzwords!
  • Compare your organization’s strategy to a competitor. Understanding a strategy is often easier when you compare yourself to a competitor. If you are in a public company, you can use the “Competitors” feature in Yahoo Finance to find competitors (e.g. some of Verizon’s competitors include Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile). If you are in the public sector, look for similar organizations (e.g. if you are in a public university in New York City, look for other universities nearby with a similar student body or operating budget).
  • Observe how leaders are allocating resources to the strategy. Resources are required to bring strategy to life! This is where the rubber meets the road. For example, your organization may have a stated strategy to expand internationally. However, you may notice that there are no projects related to that strategy. If so, you may have to do further investigation to determine the real priorities of the organization.

Strategy Resources

Learning to ask those strategic questions takes added knowledge and practice. Each person will have to come up with their own approach to strategy practice. In the mean time, use these resources to boost your strategic understanding.

The Economist

Since high school, I have read The Economist and consider it one of the best news magazines in the world. It does take a while to adjust to the magazine’s quirks – articles are not unsigned and there is a certain political-economic philosophy at play. Never mind those quirks. The Economist consistently delivers fantastic value to subscribers.

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne

This book comes up over and over again in my research on strategy. A key insight from the book is the distinction between red oceans (high competition, high information) and blue ocean (low competition, low information). If you are looking to create the new billion dollar product, a blue ocean strategy is more likely to work. The great challenge is that unknown markets and products are difficult to predict and the chance of failure is high. On the other hand, starting a new search engine to compete with Google carries great risks as well. If with great technology and supportive investors, it is difficult to see a way to overcome Google’s head start, talent and incredible financial resources.

24 Books To Hone Your Strategic Mind  by Ryan Holiday

This great list of books includes biography, history and a few traditional business books. I have read several books over the years based on his recommendations (e.g. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow – I was inspired to write Career Hacks From Young George Washington after reading Chernow’s book). If you someone asks you for gift ideas, you could always send them this article!

McKinsey Quarterly

McKinsey & Co is a well respected strategy consulting firm serving clients around the world. Learn more about McKinsey’s perspective in the world by reading McKinsey & Co. Project managers may find the following article of great interest: Developing talent for large IT projects.

 

How To Develop Business Acumen

Image Credit: Coffee by Stevepb (Pixabay.com)

I have been interviewing executives at Fortune 500 firms for an upcoming project and discovered a theme in their comments. Reaching the executive and management level requires business acumen. Developing this skillset is often challenging for technical specialists, developers, engineers and other professionals who take pride in their work. Growing your career fundamentally requires business acumen. In this article, I will define business acumen skills and explain how to develop it.

What Is Business Acumen?

There are several definitions of this term that are worth exploring. The definitions I found in researching this article combine knowledge, skills and experience. Let’s get started with the definitions.

  • Financial Times Lexicon: “Business acumen is keenness and speed in understanding and deciding on a business situation. In practice, people with business acumen are thought of as having business ‘sense’ or business ‘smarts’.  They are able to obtain essential information about a situation, focus on the key objectives, recognise the relevant options available for a solution, select an appropriate course of action and set in motion an implementation plan to get the job done.”
  • Chron.com: “In a company, a manager seen as having general business acumen is one who consistently exercises sound judgment — the results of his decisions are most often favorable. Those he works with would say he has a quick mind that can assimilate information from many different sources and come up with sound strategic alternatives. He also has the quality of insight — being able to envision what the company should do now to bring about a more profitable, successful future.”
  • Kevin R. Cope’s Definition. “An individual who possesses business acumen views the business with an “executive mentality” – they understand how the moving parts of a company work together to make it successful and how financial metrics like profit margin, cash flow, and stock price reflect how well each of those moving parts is doing its job”

As the above definitions make clear, business acumen is a large topic. There is a great deal to consider. In the steps below, I will focus on two aspects of the proficiency: understanding how the different parts of the company work and obtaining essential business information about a situation. In the future, I may return to this topic and explore other aspects of it. Cope’s definition looks at the importance of financial metrics and that could be a fruitful area to consider.

3 Strategies To Develop Business Acumen

To develop your business acumen further, use these strategies. For faster results, use more than one strategy each week.

1. Ask The Customer What They Want

Management expert Peter Drucker famously remarked, “the purpose of business is to create a customer.” After you have that customer, the question becomes how do you keep them happy (and referring more customers)? If you are working different with the organization’s end customers, you can directly ask about their problems or use surveys.

If you are one or more steps removed from customers, pose a similar question to your stakeholders. For example, if your project is to implement new software for a contact centre, you may ask to sit in a few calls or even answer some calls yourself. Such direct exposure will help you to build credibility and business acumen.

Customer Service & Knowledge Resources To Build Your Acumen

  • Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh. Zappos is widely admired for outstanding customer service. I have been curious to read this book for some time.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. A classic business book that continues to be popular. It is often recommended to people in sales and marketing. If you are looking to connect with people better, this is a good book for you. I suspect that millions of copies of the book are in print so you can easily find a copy.

2. Expand Your Horizons With New Assignments

Earlier this year, I explained the push the boundaries strategy. It is an excellent way to add new reponsibilities and learning to your existing role. In some cases, that strategy may not be a good fit. For example, if you are in a technical, engineering or back office role, you may want to increase your exposure to the customer. Without a customer, the business will not exist for very long. Fortunately, there are several ways you can build business acumen by taking on new assignments.

  • Company Committees. Serving on a company is a great way to build additional skills and grow your connections with others in the organization. In 2015, I served on an employee engagement committee and found it to be a valuable experience. It is important to focus on quality contribution, so look for a single committee where you can make a significant contribution.
  • Company Events. Helping to organize and run a company event is a good way to take on a new assignment. In addition, events have clear deadlines so they can be easier to add. When you start to work on an event, you may be asked to take on a variety of tasks from setting up tables to organizing guests. Volunteering to serve at the registration desk is a great move because it means you can welcome each attendee.
  • Job Shadowing. From a distance, you may be interested in a new job or moving to a different department. You might want to move into marketing because you see all the parties and launch events they run. Before you leap to a new role, consider job shadowing as a way to build your business acumen. In this role, you accompany someone in a different job and learn what they do. A project manager might go into the field with a technician or sales professional for the day: such an experience would help to build understanding and credibility at a much deeper level.

3. Read The Business Press

Improving your business acument requires additional knowledge. Reading the business press and media yields several benefits. You will learn more about the ways companies in different industries are evaluated (e.g. performance in retail companies often uses the sales at  stores open at least a year metric whereas telecom companies often use average revenue per user metric). In addition, you will learn about leaders in the business world (e.g. I often enjoy reading biographical articles such as The Lunch series in the Globe & Mail).

To get started in reading the business press, choose at least two publications: a national publication and an industry specific publication.

If you are in the banking industry, you could read The Economist and American Banker. If you are in retail, you might read The Wall St Journal and Retailing Today.

Question & Action:

What methods have you used to develop your business acumen in the past year?