by Doug DeCarlo, Principal
The Doug DeCarlo Group
Author of eXtreme Project Management:
Using Leadership, Principles and Tools to Deliver Value in the Face of Volatility

Winning at Project Management
Lessons Learned Over the Last 5 Years

It's been about 5 years since I've been writing a column for ProjectConnections. I now feel it's time for me to step aside and make room for another columnist. In the future, I'll be tuning into this space as a reader instead of a writer.

But before going off the air, I'd like to pass on some key lessons I've learned from observing and working with project managers since I joined ProjectConnections back in 2001. So here goes.

Honest Communication
Always tell the truth: the good, the bad and the ugly.

A project is only as sick as its secrets. If you screw up, say so. If your project is in trouble, say so. If your sponsor has unreasonable expectations, insist on a frank discussion. If this makes you afraid of being fired, you're in the wrong job.

Honest Communication is directly related to assertiveness. For more on honest communication, see my article, "A Project Is Only As Sick As Its Secrets."

Nice guys and gals finish last.

Neal Whitten, PMP – an expert in project management – claims that the number one failure of project managers is that of being too soft. I fully agree. In an attempt to satisfy the demands of management or customers, the unseasoned project manager may accept unreasonable constraints and promise more than can be delivered. Being a good soldier is a fatal flaw. Learn how to say, "No." I call this "Nohow." For more on this subject, see my article entitled, "Good Soldier Syndrome."

Soft Skills
Become an expert in soft skills.

I haven't yet seen a project that failed because the wrong scheduling tool was used. Start by recognizing that soft skills have a much greater influence on project success than hard skills (scheduling, earned value analysis, critical path modeling, etc.) The key skills for success revolve around people. These include negotiating, unleashing motivation, relationship management, facilitation, influencing without authority, conflict resolution, collaboration and more. See also "Leading Projects," just below. Some related articles on soft skills include "reSoLvING coNfliCT bEFORe IT dISOlvES yOUr tEaM" and "Six Essential Facilitation Techniques for the Project Manager."

Leading Projects
Don't worry about leading people. Instead, lead the process.

Fact is, most project managers have no direct reports. People on your team are usually volunteers. Moreover, a group of highly skilled people doesn't necessarily equal success. The sports world bears this out. The role of the PM is to introduce the processes that will enable disparate individuals to work effectively together to achieve the desired project outcome. It's here that process skills rule, especially the following: meeting planning and management, group decision making, applying the appropriate project management approach, plus all of the soft skills I outlined earlier. Bottom line: when you lead the process, you lead the people.

Speaking of choosing the appropriate process, refer to my article, "Is There a Madness to Your Method?"

Plan only to the level of detail that you can manage. The rest is a waste of time, if not dangerous.

Many project plans are exercises in fiction writing. What's worse, some people will actually believe your stuff. Overly detailed project plans can create false expectations and set you up for failure because they imply that more can be known than is possible to know. If it's a six-month project, the first 30 days can be granular. The rest is best stated at a high level. See the following articles for more information: "Announcing the Dumbbell Prize in Project Management," "Eating The Elephant One (Dynamic) Bite at a Time," and "What to Do When Uncertainty is For Sure."

Business Focus
It's not about being on-time, on-scope, on budget. It's about delivering business value.

What good does it do to bring a project in on time, on scope and on budget if it isn't what the customer can use or if the cost is greater than the economic return? New school project management looks at each project first and foremost as a business venture with measurable payback. The key questions to ask throughout the project: "Is this project on target to deliver the intended return on investment?" and "If not, should it be killed or modified to bring it in line?" For more on this topic, see my article, "Why the Blind End Up Following the Insane."

Project Sponsorship
If you don't have the right sponsor, your most important project is to get one right away.

Some would say, I and would agree, that the single biggest point of project success or failure revolves around having the right project sponsor. The right sponsor is the one who has a vested interest in the project, the ability to remove barriers (both political and financial), and can make timely decisions.

Fit the methodology to the project. Not the other way around.

I learned this one the hard way. I thought you could stretch traditional project management practices to fit all projects. Wrong. Some projects require a traditional approach, others require an agile approach. The successful project manager needs to find his or her project management specialty, or be able to apply a range of project management approaches. You may want to check out this article, Traditional Project Management vs. Extreme project Management.

Learning from Failures and Successes
Start every project with a lessons learned session.

There are no new mistakes under the sun, just old mistakes that we can learn from. Since most projects end without conducting a lessons learned session, that doesn't mean that you can't have one at the beginning of your next project. As part of the project planning meeting, have each person identify three key things they learned from past projects about what it takes to succeed, or what they would do differently.

Project Office
Fit the Project Office to the organization's culture. Not the other way around.

The majority of Project Offices I've seen try to force project teams to obey a prescribed methodology ... usually one that has been developed top down by the PO staff alone or with the help of a consultant. Project managers and teams will usually find ways of rebelling against or skirting the methodology. The entrenched culture will defeat the methodology every time. A much better approach is to adapt the methodology (traditional, eXtreme, etc.) to the organization's culture rather than attempt to change the culture to fit the project management methodology.

Spreading Project Management throughout the Organization
Create project management envy by starting a grass roots movement. Forget top-down, wide-scale organizational change programs.

Most organizations nowadays do not have the time and resources to proliferate major change programs in project management. These boil-the-ocean initiatives invariably loose steam and fizzle out. Instead, pick a handful of key projects and introduce project-specific project management practices on a project-by-project basis. Demonstrate success, including interim results early and often. This will start to draw in the holdouts (late adopters) who will push for more of the same. For more on this topic, see my article, "How Do You Migrate to Extreme Project Management?"

Above all, build trust.

You can get so involved in the technicalities of building the project deliverable and dealing with project administrivia, that you fail to recognize that unless people really believe the project can succeed, chances are it won't. My brand of project management (eXtreme project management) espouses a set of 10 Shared Values that, when put into practice, go a long way to establish trust and confidence. For more information, see "eXtreme project Management ´┐Ż: The Essential Elements."

Throwing in the Towel
Unless being a project manager is your passion, find another job.

If you are unhappy in your job as a project manager, taking more courses and getting certified won't help. Trying to get better at something you don't like, thinking that you will eventually like it, is a form of self-deception. Stop going crazy, stop being a wreck, take back your family life and find something else to do.

Along these lines, a couple of articles to check out are "Is Your Heart in Your Job?" and "eXtreme Project Management´┐Ż: Self-Mastery or Self-Misery: It's Your Choice."

I don't claim that my list is the definitive list of lessons learned. It reflects my own experiences and biases. If the lessons ring true for you, then please use them. But the most important lessons to be learned are likely to be found in your own head and heart. So above all, be sure to take a close look at your most important project: Yourself.

eXtremely yours,

Doug DeCarlo

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