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Wildlife project case study, Portishead toadsThree years ago, Helen Mason stood outside her home and looked at the road. Every day there were more frogs and toads that hadn’t made it to the other side. The increasing numbers of dead amphibians made her feel that the local population of frogs and toads needed a helping hand to cross the road. So she set up a project to do something about it.

The frog-saving team

The frogs cross a busy road in Portishead to get to their breeding ponds. The toads can’t get up the curbs. Both species sometimes fall down the drains and get stuck. Helen roped in a few more volunteers with buckets and torches to patrol the streets around the ponds between 6pm and 10pm at night: the busy time for cars and dusk for the migrating amphibians.

Together they saved 900 frogs and toads from traffic in 2013 but as with any project it was clear she needed more resources if they were going to achieve more.

Volunteers are onboarded to the project team with a guided walk around the areas, then allocated an experienced mentor and an area to patrol as part of a team. The team wear plastic gloves under their woolly ones – frogs naturally find the puddles to sit in so it’s easy to get wet and cold very quickly. Sound like how you bring people on to your projects? OK, maybe not the plastic gloves bit.

Predicting volumes

The estimating techniques you use on projects also help Helen’s team work out how busy a night they are going to have. They predict the volumes of frogs based on the temperature. The colder the evening, the less likely it is that the frogs will be on the move. When the frost lifts, they come out in their hundreds.

“Toads are easy to pick up,” Helen says. “In the bucket the males will often get on top of the females in the mating position. Frogs, on the other hand, are noisy and jumpy.” Once across the road in the safety of a bucket, the amphibians hop along to the breeding ponds.

The migration season lasts 5 weeks (and it’s happening now) so while the overall duration of the project is short, there’s high effort involved for that time.

Continually improving the process

Things are going well so far this time. We have collected around 600 frogs, 200 toads and about 30 smooth newts already. Most nights are too cold, but the warmer evenings bring lots out onto the streets. Luckily some dedicated new volunteers have turned up too.

Helen Mason

Saving frogs is one thing, but wouldn’t it be good if the problems didn’t occur in the first place? The problems are compounded by the fact that Portishead isn’t your typical toad crossing. “Amphibians are crossing a number of roads and could pop up anywhere on the housing estate,” Helen explains.

The Frog Patrol would ideally like a tunnel under the busiest roads, but that’s an expensive and complicated project. They’ve already got road signs (I took these photos when I went to visit the area recently). They are also working with the council to put wire ramps in the drains to help stranded toads and expanding the search area with more volunteers.

This year Helen predicts they need 16 people a night to take on shifts, and the more volunteers they have, the less everyone has to do. There are some people in the local community who won’t be volunteering though: Helen offers a frog removal service for a neighbour with a phobia of frogs every time one turns up in her garden.

Toad habitat Portishead

Measuring success

Metrics help you measure the success of your projects, and Helen’s initiative is no exception. They count every frog and toad to make detailed reports to Froglife, a UK-wide wildlife charity dedicated to amphibians and reptiles. Last year a team of 27 saved 1500 frogs, toads and even 4 great-crested newts, one of the UK’s rarest species. “They’ve got lovely stripy fingers,” Helen says. Ecologists had previously been unable to find evidence of the newts in the area so the meticulous data collection of the Portishead Frog Patrol has helped there too.

They also count the dead frogs and send off all the data to help form a national picture. This data is in turn shared with the European Network for the Protection of Amphibians and Reptiles from Transport Systems (ENPARTS) to inform ways of protecting wildlife across Europe.

As with any project team, knowing they’ve done a great job is also a consideration for judging success. One of the youngest volunteers, a 5 year old girl out with a parent, said that collecting the frogs was, “the best day of her life.”

Would you like to volunteer? Find a frog-saving project near you via the Toads on Roads project.


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The Power of Project Leadership [Book review]

Book review of The Power of Project LeadershipA couple of weeks ago I interviewed Susanne Madsen on the topic of project leadership and her new book, The Power of Project Leadership. I read it prior to our interview and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

I expected a book about leadership theory but what I got was a hugely practical guide to actually doing leadership with plenty of stories, examples and exercises. The book takes you from understanding why leadership is important for project managers to uncovering your own motivations and leadership style. Then Susanne introduces the 7 keys of project leadership.

Finally, she covers how to step up and apply the techniques in the book to be a more impactful leader.

The 7 keys of project leadership

Susanne writes about the 7 keys of project leadership that she says are the answer to being a great project leader. These are:

  • Be authentic (she talks about this in her interview with me from last month)
  • Lead with vision
  • Improve and innovate
  • Empower the team
  • Get close to stakeholders
  • Establish a solid foundation
  • Work with intent.

I particularly liked the section on stakeholder management. She writes:

“One of the best ways to address a sceptical stakeholder – or opponent – is to ask for advice and feedback. This is a very disarming move, which instantly opens up the relationship because you show that you care and that you are humble enough to ask for the person’s opinion.”

Susanne suggests that you ask those negative stakeholders:

  • How can we work together more effectively?
  • How can I deiver a better product or service to you? (Customer-centric project management if ever I saw it!)
  • Are there any aspects of the project, like risks, issues or requirements, that you think we have overlooked?
  • Do you have any feedback about the project: what suggestions do you have for how we can improve?

“These questions have the potential to work wonders for you – but only if you sincerely mean it and take the time to really listen to the answer and to the meaning behind the words,” she continues.

Finding the time to lead

“Project leaders are wise because they are able to relate their knowledge no matter the situation and because they put their knowledge into action,” Susanne writes. In order to apply your wisdom, you have to find the time to do it – time when you aren’t running around trying to solve other people’s problems or deal with urgent issues.

Susanne argues that you should spend most of your time on proactive work: she recommends at least 80%. The remainder of your time can be spent on firefighting such as dealing with problems, urgent queries and conflict and then hopefully not much time at all on time wasting activities like interruptions and unimportant calls and mails.

She writes:

“If we don’t seek to put out the fires for good, not only will we get mediocre results, but we may also end up being highly stressed and more likely to burn out. Constantly being on high alert requires a lot of energy and wears us out, physically and mentally. It is much more rewarding to carve out time for the important and to deliberately grown and empower the team to help us create a successful outcome for everyone involved. So be determined to take control of the flow of events; free up time to be proactive and help your team do the same.”

A good book for leaders who want to improve

The Power of Project Leadership is a well-researched book, and the stories from project managers and other experts add to the practical approach as well as providing the motivation to actually do things in a different way.

It’s a book aimed at project managers and those who want to get better at leading and implementing change. The concepts and theories of leadership – the bits I expected – are covered but there’s also a range of practical advice and tips on how to implement behavioural changes through a selection of exercises.

If you apply even half of what this book covers you’ll be a better project leader almost instantly. And if you do need help making your new knowledge stick, there is space to record your personal notes about what you have learned from each chapter and what you intend to do to apply the learning. That’s a useful record and incentive for you to refer back to.

If you’d like to develop as an individual this is a great read, but you’ll get the added advantage of being able to help others apply the same concepts and behaviours. And what’s the most important part of leadership, if not developing others?


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057_Management gold headerLast year my book, Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World, was shortlisted in the Management Book of the Year awards. This year, Petra Wilton, Director of Strategy and External Affairs at CMI, shares tips from the 2015 winning books.


Petra WiltonThe best leaders are forever looking for new ideas. CMI’s Management Book of the Year competition scours the pages of the raft of books out there, seeking the brightest pieces of ‘management gold’ to improve your management and ongoing management training.

Here are five great tips to manage better from the very best texts of the year.

1. Embrace uncertainty

Why does the phrase “fear of the unknown” exist? We should all abide by the mantra, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”. Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner walked away with the 2015 CMI Management Book of the Year award thanks to their book Not Knowing: The art of turning uncertainty into opportunity.

The book smashes the traditional idea that the boss de facto knows best, and shows why navigating uncertainty and doubt are at the heart of modern leadership. After all, blind certainty and dependency on ‘experts’ creates huge risks. In a complex and fast-changing world, it’s impossible to always have the answers. Embrace uncertainty so you can face the unknown and thrive, not just survive.

Winner of the Commuter’s Read category and the overall CMI Management Book of the Year.

2. Don’t get lost in translation

The 21st century office is a cosmopolitan place: odds are you manage a multicultural group of people, each of whom brings their own style of working to the table. It’s not always the easiest task to adapt your own style to accommodate others. Organizations and Management in Cross-Cultural Context will illustrate and vanquish all your fears and preconceptions of working in an international environment quicker than you can count to ten in five different languages.

Winner – Management and Leadership Textbook category.

3. Harness capitalism

Are we looking at the wrong people to help us solve global issues? The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems highlights how 37 of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations – not countries.

Lynda Gratton shows how big businesses need to lead the way in the battle to overcome worldwide difficulties such as youth unemployment and inequality. Where does that leave politicians?

Winner – Management Futures category.

Collage of Management Gold books

4. Think customer

Having trouble coming up with your next big idea? Chances are someone else has thought of it before you – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A new set of organisations has discovered that it is better to do what people want rather than what you are good at. Consumers are demanding and dictating how to win at business – all you need to do is listen to them, and Customer Innovation: Customer-centric strategy for enduring growth reveals the best tips.

Winner – Innovation and Entrepreneurship. [Got to love any book with Customer-centric in the title, haven’t I? – Elizabeth]

5. Make time pay

Time is money: and sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day. The Little Book of Big Management Theories is a gamechanger that shows you how to make every minute count. Each of the 89 management theories is laid out over two pages. Give it three months and you will have added a technique a day.

Winner – Practical Manager.

About the author: Petra Wilton takes a lead role in building strategic partnerships in the public policy arena. She is responsible for promoting the needs of practising managers through engaging with and accessing the views of the CMI’s 100,000 plus members. Petra also leads on the development of customer insight and building CMI’s body of knowledge, and she has co-authored many CMI reports. She also set up the Campus CMI initiative to inspire and create confidence in young people through developing their management and leadership skills. She manages the All Party Parliamentary Group on Management and represents the CMI on various external group, including the recent ABS Innovation Taskforce, the Employee Engagement Taskforce Gurus’ Group, Valuing your Talent and Professions Week.


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What I’m reading: February 2015

Project management books Feb 2015This post contains affiliate links.                

This post might be better titled: What I haven’t read this month.

I haven’t even started Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change although I did take it on holiday with me. It stayed in the case. Instead I read Slow Cooking and then made a butternut squash risotto when we got home.

I did read Playing the Project Manager by Charles Smith. I don’t want to spoil my review by giving away too much but it’s unlike any project management book I’ve read so far and I had quite a strong reaction to it!

Jack and Oliver were given quite a few books for their birthdays including a couple by Richard Scarry. Remember him? I loved What Do People Do All Day? when I was younger. I didn’t realise his stuff was still in print but the pictures are amazing.

I think Jack prefers Thomas’ 123. “One, two, three, eight,” he goes, pointing at the trains. He’s getting there with counting at about the same rate that Oliver is learning to climb the stairs. We count the stairs up and down – maybe there is a connection?

I haven’t read this month’s Project magazine (that problem should be alleviated soon as it’s going to quarterly – not sure how I feel about that yet) or PM Network but they are in my work bag to read on the train. Hopefully I’ll get through them before the next lot arrive.

What have you read recently? If you haven’t touched any project management books, how about getting a copy of my book Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World  which is currently 15% off on Amazon? Click here to check out the deal.



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I used this video at a presentation on managing virtual teams I gave with László Kónya, Head of Solutions & Projects for IT Services Hungary at the PMI Budapest Hungarian Chapter conference for International Project Management Day last year. I think it shows the challenges with conference calls perfectly!

If this has convinced you to try something else, check out these 5 things better than conference calls.


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Susanne Madsen on Project Leadership [Interview]

Project LeadershipLast month I read Susanne Madsen’s book, The Power of Project Leadership (and I have a copy to give away in April too). I was struck by how practical it was. Often we think that leadership is about character and attitude (read my take on the traits of good leaders here) and forget that you can actually practice being a better leader by coaching yourself in the right behaviours. That’s what Susanne’s book basically does: it shows you how to ‘do’ leadership.

So I wanted to talk to her to find out more. This is what happened when we spoke…

Susanne, there’s a lot of buzz around project leadership at the moment. It’s become a ‘thing’. So what’s the deal – why does leadership on projects matter?

When we use leadership to run a project, in addition to management, we are more likely to deliver real benefits to the client and the users, and to fully engage the team and the stakeholders in the process.

The reason is that when we exclusively use a management approach (which most project managers do) we are transactional and predominantly concerned with the task-oriented aspects of the job, such as planning and ticking off work items. But because projects aren’t purely mechanical, we need more than a rational task-oriented approach to deliver them.

When we use leadership, we are more people-oriented, strategic and visionary, which helps us to motivate and inspire people to deliver the project’s outcomes. That’s what it’s all about; empowering people to contribute to a bigger vision – and ensuring that the vision adds real benefit to the client.

I know many project managers are very comfortable managing but the idea of being a leader worries them. Can you still get results if you don’t feel ready to take on a leadership role or is leadership the new de facto requirement?

When we use leadership to run a project, in addition to management, we are more likely to deliver real benefits to the client and the users, and to fully engage the team and the stakeholders in the process.

When we use leadership to run a project, in addition to management, we are more likely to deliver real benefits to the client and the users, and to fully engage the team and the stakeholders in the process.

Different projects require a different set of skills from the individual project manager. Complex projects that have many stakeholders, a volatile environment and maybe an inexperienced project sponsor will need more leadership than a small and simple project.

Having said that, on any project it is people – and not the processes – that make projects happen. This means that any project manager who wants to be successful will need to develop and make use of emotional intelligence in addition to their cognitive intelligence. Unfortunately it is still the case that many project managers lack basic people-skills and aren’t able to easily build trust and influence people. So I would say that project leadership isn’t the de facto position yet, but that I hope it soon will be.

Well, the leadership angle certainly makes project work more interesting, in my view, so I’m happy with that. In the book you talk about authentic leadership. What does being authentic look like?

Being authentic is when every project manager truly knows what they stand for and what they believe in. When we have a clear sense of our values it is much easier to do the right thing in any given situation and to intuitively lead others.

When we lead in an authentic way it means that there is harmony between what we think and feel on the one hand and what we say and do on the other. We focus on delivering value and standing up for what we believe is right rather than playing favorites or engaging in dishonest politics.

The true test of authenticity is how we actually behave under pressure and when things aren’t going our way. If we don’t act with integrity in those situations – by not doing what we said we would – trust is broken and not easily regained.

You also talk about creating an empowered team, which must also be important for maintaining trust on the project. How do you do that?

Empowering the team is big topic that I have dedicated an entire chapter to in the book. Empowering people is about involving and engaging others, facilitating collaboration at all levels, and enabling the team to grow and do what it does best.

OK, but how do you know if your team is empowered?

Book cover image

Susanne Madsen’s book is published by Kogan Page

You know you’ve got there when people work autonomously and contribute with powerful ideas and solutions without your active involvement.

One of the tips I have for creating an empowered team is to read up on emotional intelligence and to start using it to better understand people on the project. Listen, observe and ask questions. Don’t feel that you have to know all the answers and that things have to get done your way. Be the enabler, guide and coach rather than a dictatorial general.

Tightly controlling people is one of the most predictable ways of killing engagement and to disempower people. Instead, ask lots of (what-if) questions, create the space for people to step up and give people the autonomy to decide how to do their work instead of being too prescriptive.

Your book is aimed at helping others learn to be a better leader. What did you learn writing the book?

I did a lot of research when writing the book and learned a lot – especially about innovation and how to get the team to step in and contribute by asking “what-if” questions. “How”, “what”, “when”, “where” and “who” questions aren’t necessarily the best at opening up people’s minds to move beyond the status quo and into creative thinking.

What-if questions, on the other hand, challenge the team not only to think but to rethink. For example; what would we do if we knew we couldn’t fail? What if we could achieve the impossible? What if we could solve this problem faster than anyone else?

The best what-if questions are those that people can’t answer based on what they currently know. These questions spark intellectual curiosity and create space for people to step in and get involved. And what actually happens is that the burden of thinking shifts from the project manager to the team, which is when real project leadership begins.

This isn’t your first book and you’re now a sought-after coach and trainer. What’s the one question you get asked most by the project managers you meet?

Project managers often ask me what they can do to gain buy-in from stakeholders and people in other departments who are contributors to their project. They feel that they constantly have to chase to get what they need, whether it’s information, decisions, resources or completed tasks.

The basic way to improve buy-in is by strengthening individual relationships. Project managers have to put their transactional task-oriented mindset behind them and instead focus on getting to know each person, their situation and “what’s in it for them”.

When that happens, trust, commitment and buy-in begins to form. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is, but what’s hard is setting time aside and doing it. Project managers have to accept that building relationships and truly understanding what’s going on for someone else is as big a part of the job as creating milestones plans and risk registers.

Thanks, Susanne. What do you hope people will do after reading this?

I would like to encourage project mangers to start thinking of themselves as role models. When we know that other people will follow our example, we raise our standard and become more conscious about how we act and what practices we use to run projects. Our industry needs great role models and I would love to see more project managers step up to the challenge and begin to mentor people around them.

About my interviewee: Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership. Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).


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Ace the PMP Exam [Book Review]

When I first wrote [amazon text=Social Media for Project Managers&asin=1935589113] the publishers put 'Elizabeth Harrin, PMP' on the cover. I had to get that taken off - I'm not a PMP, although I feel very familiar with the PMBOK Guide® concepts. It's simply something I've never got round to doing. I might at some point in… Continue Reading->

10 Things I love about managing projects

Click the graphic to see it full size. The variety. Today, IT, tomorrow talking to Marketing. Every day is different! Leading a team. Teamwork makes the day more interesting. The tech. Getting to try new apps. Problem solving. It's satisfying to put things right. Introducing new things. Delivering change is fun! Communicating. There's lots of… Continue Reading->

Free project action log template

My To Do list is massive. So I have developed an action log to control my tasks. I copy and paste actions from conference calls, steering group meetings, team meetings and those chance conversations you have in the corridor into this. I can filter it by task owner when I am talking to someone and… Continue Reading->

Giveaway: Get Fit with the Lazy Project Manager

I interviewed Peter Taylor, otherwise known as The Lazy Project Manager, last month. He shared some tips on how to manage project health checks. I have a copy of his book, Get Fit with the Lazy Project Manager, to give away. Contact me with the phrase, "I'm a bit fit" and I'll add you to… Continue Reading->

What George Orwell Can Teach Us About Project Management

This is a guest contribution by Mark Phillips, PMP. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” George Orwell George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, is the last essay in his wonderful Penguin Book called “[amazon text=Why I Write&asin=014101900X]” In the essay… Continue Reading->

Women in IT Awards: the results

The inaugural Women in IT Awards were held in London on Thursday and I’d been nominated, with my colleague, for work on a large IT transformation project at Spire Healthcare (the project forms the major case study in my book, [amazon text=Customer-Centric Project Management&asin=1409443124]). This photo is of us just before dinner was served. It… Continue Reading->