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Playing the Project Manager [Book review]

Playing the Project Manager by Charles Smith

It’s not often that I review books that I don’t like. But let’s get it out there early: I didn’t like this one.

Playing the Project Manager* by Charles Smith wasn’t my cup of tea. It started out well enough because I thought it would be about how you manage yourself on a project and how you shape a career out of managing projects. That sounded interesting.

To an extent it is about that, but abstracted to a point where I couldn’t see how to use the information.

What I would have liked about it if I’d liked it

Charles argues that project managers perform a role in a business and through this form their professional identify and reputation. He says:

“Their credibility is built not on their knowledge of mechanised practices and administrative procedures, but on how they handle the complexities and challenges of the real project world.”

I agree that project managers are performers. When I go into a meeting I’m being an authentic version of myself but project management is the cloak I put on to get the job done. And I agree that the best project managers I work with know the tools but don’t much care about them. The important business of getting projects done happens around the edges of the project schedule, or risk log or any other of the essential documents for managing projects.

Generally I also like books with case studies and stories, and there are plenty of those, along with a discussion of what we can take from those experiences. [click to continue…]


5 Ways that PMs and BAs can collaborate

This is a guest post by Laura Brandenburg.

We all want more successful projects – projects that deliver their intended business value and are delivered on time and on budget. As a project manager, you work with a variety of different team members that offer up different skill sets and contribute to your project’s success. One of those team members is often a business analyst.

But what exactly is the business analyst supposed to do? How can you leverage their skills and competencies to create more successful projects?

Business analysis helps ensure your project delivers the intended business value and that business needs, requirements, and processes are well-understood, leading to a more streamlined implementation process.

A skillful business analyst can ease a lot of project turmoil and be one of your best partners. And there is a lot you can do as a project manager to help create the environment in which they can do their best work.

In this article, we’ll look at five specific ways you can collaborate with business analysts to help create more successful projects.

#1: Collaborate on project scope to minimize scope creep

In order to thoroughly analyze the detailed requirements and help manage scope creep, the business analyst needs to understand the business problem being solved and the over-arching “why” behind the project. Typically this information is documented in the business case or project scope document.

A business analyst will naturally have a lot of questions about the project scope. Questions can be frustrating, especially when they come in after the project scope is considered approved, but answering them now will enable the business analyst to help you manage scope creep, prioritize detailed requirements, and generally keep the requirements effort on track.

An easier approach is to get the business analyst involved in creating these documents in the first place, as then their questions can be addressed at a more appropriate time. A business analyst can help the business sponsor discover the underlying business problem, consider alternate solutions, and decide on the best approach before making a commitment to a specific project scope. This practice leads to a scope document that’s a steadfast compass for the entire project team and can shortcut scope creep before it even starts.

But understanding scope requires that the right stakeholders are involved on the project. Let’s look next at how project managers and business analysts can collaborate when working with stakeholders. [click to continue…]


10 Things I love about managing projects

10 things i love about pm infographic

Click the graphic to see it full size.

10 Things I love about managing projects

  1. The variety. Today, IT, tomorrow talking to Marketing. Every day is different!
  2. Leading a team. Teamwork makes the day more interesting.
  3. The tech. Getting to try new apps.
  4. Problem solving. It’s satisfying to put things right.
  5. Introducing new things. Delivering change is fun!
  6. Communicating. There’s lots of talking and writing to do.
  7. Delivering value. I can see how my contribution makes a difference.
  8. Transferable skills. Future-proofing my career and making myself more marketable.
  9. The other people. Access to different teams to see the whole business.
  10. Flexibility. Working from home or office.

What is the best thing about managing projects for you? Let us know in the comments.


The definitive guide to project success criteria

Definitive guide to Project Success CriteriaI get asked about project success criteria a lot – in fact, it’s one of the most searched terms on this site. So I thought it was about time that I pooled all my resources into one definitive guide to project success criteria.

And where better to start than with a definition of what project success criteria actually are:

Project success criteria: a definition

Project success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders.

OK, glad we got that sorted. Now let’s look at why we should care about project success criteria.

Why are success criteria important?

Organisations don’t define failure. We don’t document how we will know if a project has failed – what failure looks like – because thinking about failing is not a good way to motivate the project team when the work has only just started. The absence of a formal definition of failure makes it uncomfortably easy for internal and external stakeholders to brand projects a failure.

Think about some of the projects that have hit the headlines recently (in any country). Projects ‘fail’ in the eyes of the media and stakeholders because for people are left to guess what success looks like. Is it delivery on time? Is it delivery on budget? Perhaps those two things really don’t matter much to the stakeholders concerned if they get a great quality result and happy customers.

Successful organisations take the guesswork out of this process: they define what success looks like, so they know when they have achieved it. If you want project success, you have to define what success looks like for your project. Perhaps budget is the most important thing to your stakeholders, and quality is taking a back seat on the project. Perhaps customer satisfaction is essential, and you don’t care how many overtime hours the team has to work to get that end result.

Project success criteria are a great tool to use to manage stakeholders and to generate engagement. You can use them to define the project’s goals and track progress – and if your stakeholders stop caring about your success criteria you’ve got an early warning sign that you need to do more to continue to keep them on side.

Project success criteria are the standards by which the project will be judged at the end to decide whether or not it has been successful in the eyes of the stakeholders.

Whatever success looks like, you have to define it so you can own it. There are two types of success criteria that you’ll need to define for your project.

Two types of project success criteria

So you want to know how you’ll know if your project has been a success? You need to identify what success looks like for you and your stakeholders. And the easiest way to do this is to brainstorm with your team.

During this process you’ll probably come up with success criteria related to the management of the project. These are the success criteria which you can refer to in project audits or the post-project review. They help focus your mind on the ‘business’ of project management and relate to doing the project right. They help you check that you’re hitting all the right targets and are applying project management standards appropriately. Examples would be things like:

  • Hold a Project Board meeting once a month
  • Complete project audits in line with the timetable published by the Project Office
  • Ensure all timesheets are completed by the deadlines
  • Achieve 95% compliance on project quality reviews.

Alone these success criteria are not sufficient. They help you measure whether you’re doing a good job but not whether you are actually delivering anything useful for your stakeholders.

Your success criteria analysis should also identify deliverable-based project success criteria which are strongly linked to the business case and the rationale behind doing the project. It’s hard to give sensible examples as they are tied so tightly to what your project is delivering but you should aim for things like:

  • Achieve rollout of software to all users
  • Train 95% of staff within the two week training period
  • Improve customer satisfaction by 65% over the first three months
  • Gain Centre of Excellence accreditation for Marketing department.

You get the picture.

So, to summarise:

  • Project management success criteria: Related to the professional job of running the project e.g. Produce and gain sign off for project initiation document
  • Project deliverable success criteria: Related to things delivered as a result of the project e.g. Distribute 6,000 instructional leaflets to households in our target area.

Document your success criteria

Document your project success criteria in a list. I include the list in the Project Charter or Project Initiation Document so it’s easy to refer to.

Each list item should include:

  • Name of success criteria
  • How it is going to be measured
  • How often it is going to be measured
  • Who is responsible for measuring it

You can also capture the output of the measurements here if you want, or move that to another relevant project document. Personally I like to keep them separate, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work to have your records all in one place.

Documenting your success criteria also means that you can get project stakeholders to sign up to them. Having them clearly recorded makes it easy to refer to them later and there is no ambiguity about what you set out to do.

Of course, you can change them later, add a few more or take some away if the project evolves.

How to measure project success criteria

You have two choices when it comes to measuring project success criteria:

  • Discrete: Yes/No
    We did or did not do something
    Examples: Project delivered on time, company gained XYZ accreditation, new branch opened
  • Continuous: measurable on a scale
    We did something to a certain extent, within a target range
    Examples: Improve customer satisfaction scores to between 75 per cent and 100 per cent, increase revenue by 8-10 per cent, rebrand 15-20 offices within Quarter Four.

Continuous measurements always include the possibility of being translated into discrete targets. If customer satisfaction was 75 per cent in May, and the target was 60 per cent, you reached the target. If it was 59 per cent, you didn’t. Monitoring benefits on a continuous scale is always better as it allows you to track changes over a period of time. If the customer satisfaction target was reached in May, that’s fantastic. But you cannot tell from a yes/no measurement if it was better or worse than April or what the trend into June is looking like. So go for continuous measurements wherever you can.

Baselining performance

It’s great knowing how you are going to measure success criteria going forwards, but how are you doing today? If you want to capture trending information then you have to take a baseline of current performance as soon as you can, preferably as soon as you have set the success criteria. The problem is that at the beginning of a project there’s normally so much going on that baselining current performance takes a back seat to doing improvements and delivering change.

Still, make time for it, or you’ll have a harder job later working out whether your project has made a difference. It’s great knowing that you are now calling back customers within 20 minutes, but if you don’t know what the call back time was before project was implemented you may very well have made the situation worse – you just can’t tell.

A performance baseline lets you identify the differences in performance in the post-project world related to the things you consider important measures – your project success criteria. Use the same calculations and tracking method to work out your baseline performance as you intend to do for measuring your success criteria later. Otherwise you are introducing even more variables into the mix – keep it simple.

When do I track success criteria?

You’ll take an initial performance benchmark as soon as you can in the project, as we saw above. Then you have to work out how often you want to measure your project success criteria. I think that each success criteria will have different requirements. Some you can track once a month, others you’ll only measure once more. Some you won’t track very often and then as soon as you hit delivery you might be measuring them daily (like daily quality targets or call handling times). For help on what you should be reporting regularly, get my e-course and ebook on Better Project Status Reports.

Project management-related success criteria do not need to be tracked over time and so you do not need to generate a baseline of current performance. Once the project or task is over you should be able to say with certainty whether or not, and to what extent, you met the criteria. Did you hold those Project Board meetings monthly? I hope so. But if you didn’t, the project is over and chances are no one cares anymore.

The true business benefits, on the other hand, hopefully last for a lot longer. Even a one-off project like changing all the office light bulbs to energy efficient ones has durable benefits. The success criteria could be: ‘maintain electricity savings at 40 per cent of previous expenditure for three years.’ The measurement of these over time should be handed to the operations team as part of the project handover when the project closes. You should not keep the responsibility for tracking success criteria (i.e. project benefits) over time. While the project is running, report on your progress so you celebrate the successes as you go. And if there aren’t successes to celebrate, so you can adjust your project approach so that you do hit your success criteria.

Project success criteria: the summary

To summarise:

  • You must define what success looks like for your project or you won’t know if you have achieved it.
  • Success criteria measure what’s important to your stakeholders.
  • Document success criteria and get everyone to agree to them.
  • Use continuous measurements where possible.
  • Baseline today’s performance so you know where you are starting from.
  • Track as appropriate and report on your progress.


5 Tips for Managing Project Communications in a Crisis

In this video I look at project communications during a crisis (text summary below).

For those of you who prefer reading or who can’t watch the video, here’s a summary:

There are always things that go wrong on projects – sometimes those issues are small; sometimes they are significant. Here are 5 tips to help you deal with project communications during an issue.

1.     Have a single point of contact

Appoint a single point of contact to deal with communications during the incident. That could be you or someone else from the project team, but make sure everyone knows who to go to for communication updates and who will be asking them for status reports. This person is dedicated to running the communication for all the stakeholders.

2.     Deal in facts

There will probably be quite a lot of emotions during a problem – people have an emotional response to what has gone wrong. Strip that back and deal with what you know to be true.

3.     Deal with what people are worried about

You might be dealing with something behind the scenes, such as a software bug, but your end users might be worried about something else. Don’t dismiss these views as unimportant. Those concerns are valid: listen to what those people are saying and deal with what is bothering them, even if that means you are splitting your efforts between fixing the behind the scenes problem and dealing with concerns from your users.

4.     Be fast

Get your messages out there as quickly as possible. It’s the best way to squash gossip before it starts.

5.     Plan for power down

Think about how you will deal with project communications if you don’t have electricity. It happens: power lines are cut through and generators go down. When you can’t rely on email, instant messaging or people being in front of their computers, how are you going to get the messages out?

View all my project management videos on my YouTube channel here.


Top Tips for Breaking into Project Management

52 Tips to break into PM“What advice do you have for project management students fresh out of school who want to break into the discipline?”

That’s what Geoff Crane asked me, and other project managers, so he could compile our top tips for his students. I found it quite difficult to come up with some tips because there are so many things that I could pass on to new project managers. In the end, given the space constraints, this is what I came up with:

New project managers should show that they are flexible, willing to put in the time and able to listen to their project team members. As you don’t have much project management experience, look for other ways to contribute, such as through facilitating discussion, being great at documentation, being honest and transparent in communications and asking the questions that no one else dares to – I do this a lot and when you are new to a business or a job you can get away with it simply because you are new!

One of my first projects I forgot to identify a stakeholder group and didn’t talk to them at all. Then on go live day I had the head of that department on the phone wondering what had happened and why her team was swamped with extra work. Communicate more than you think you have to – extra stakeholders will appear where you least expect them. That doesn’t mean blanket emails to the whole company. It means tailored, relevant communication to specific stakeholders, but lots and lots of it. Phone people, stop by their offices, invite them to lunch or coffee. Especially on big projects, people do worry about not knowing what’s going on: it’s your job to stop that.

People do worry about not knowing what’s going on, especially on big projects. It’s your job to stop that.

Another unwritten rule of project management is that you protect your project team from politics and grief so that they can get on and do their jobs. If it helps, take the blame for problems yourself. It’s a great way to diffuse tension and help people move on to constructive problem solving. It is very hard for someone to keep shouting or ranting at you when you’ve apologised.

Finally, don’t forget that you are a project stakeholder too: you should always get something out of a project in terms of career development, even if it is just spending another 6 months working in an area you love.

Geoff put together a whole ebook. You can download it for free with a single click here. It’s a PDF document (no sign up required).


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