Tag Archives: project manager

What is a Project Manager?

There are lots of definitions of a project available – of which my favourite conventional one is the Project Management Institute’s:

‘It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.’

At the start of How to Manage a Great Project, I decline to define projects, preferring instead to list typical features of a project, but then relent at the end of the book in the short ‘Learn the Lingo’ chapter, describing a project as:

‘a co-ordinated set of tasks, which together create a defined new product, process or service, within a constrained time or resource budget.’

So many organisations are now using project management to manage repeating tasks, that I think the ‘unique’ component has far less importance in the definition than it once did. Of course, we must also acknowledge the undesirable reality of many projects, so I also offer this tongue-in-cheek definition:

‘Project management is a race to complete a poorly defined thing by an artificial deadline, by co-ordinating a disparate bunch of people each of whom has their own agenda, prejudices and ideas about how to manage the chaos of a complex, novel and urgent endeavour, for which they will never be properly thanked.’

Sound familiar? It’s the same as the others above, only a bit different. Actually I offer seven desirable traits of good project management, before going on to define what is rarely defined elsewhere: a project manager.

My first definition, is by way of a cartoon, in which the plates represent the streams of work we need to keep on target and the balls represent the relationships we need to manage.

A Project Manager

My next definition is a little more complimentary describing a project manager as a doer, an organiser, and a succeeder.

The three corners of a project manager's personality and skill set

Now, between you and me, I did spend a while trying to be even more sophisticated, before I realised two things:

  1. I am not that good at being sophisticated
  2. How to Manage a Great Project is not the right book for that level of sophistication (phew)

I spent a while looking for evidence of patterns among the Big Five personality factors that characterised successful project managers.  I reached some weak conclusions only. So, if you are a project manager, I would welcome you completing the following poll, in the hope I can gather some data for a future blog.

Tick all of the statements that your friends and colleagues would say apply to you most of the time. I know that they all apply at some time, so please try to avoid ticking all of them.

Team Refresh

Teams go through cycles.  Not just the progressive improvement: from a group of people meeting each other for the first time, to a highly collaborative corps with a sense of shared responsibility.  Once you have achieved that, they still go through peaks and troughs.

I want to look at ten things you can do to re-energise a team that has been stretched and strained and wants a rest – yet still has work to do.

1. Take a Break

Your team wants rest: give it to them.  Often, a short, organised break from work for a team activity will re-invigorate your team to the extent that the increased productivity afterwards will re-pay the lost hours within days, rather than weeks.

It doesn’t have to be expensive (a slap-up lunch, picnic in the park, early finish and afternoon in the pub), and it can be work – just a very different kind (volunteering or community service works well).

2. Good News

Make a real effort to identify good news items you can report to the team and provide a stream of honest updates that highlight real progress of the team and the contribution their work is making.  Good news from outside, in the form of novelty items from the web can also lighten the mood and create a shared, fun experience.

3. Optimism

It is easy to get down under the pressures of deadlines and setbacks.  Your team will take their emotional cues from you, so cultivate an optimistic slant: not just shallow “glass half-full” optimism but a real focus on opportunities and solutions.  And always demonstrate your faith in each individual and in the team as a whole.

4. A problem shared…

Act as a sounding board for your team members’ problems, frustrations and disappointments.  You rarely need to offer solutions – they can do that for themselves.  But they will value you most when you can listen uncritically and provide absolute support.

5. Recognise and Reward

Recognise individual and team successes and set up a scheme of celebrating and rewarding them: “person of the month”, “innovation of the week”, or “gaff of the day” can be a reason for the team to get together and feel god about themselves.  Token gifts and a round of applause are all you need.

6. … and Tackle Under-performance

Persistent under-performers can sap a team’s energy.  When colleagues do not pull their weight, it feels unfair and demotivates us, so deal with the issues to ensure everyone feels that all of their colleagues are contributing fully.

7. Review Milestones and Schedules

Take a time-out to review your plan critically and evaluate your schedule and milestones.  Show your team that unreasonable milestones can move or that you are re-prioritising work to meet them, and that challenging milestones are achievable, will renew their sense of optimism and their sense of urgency.

8. Swap Roles

Where possible, re-energise individuals by giving them new roles.  This can give fresh eyes to a stale problem, and new energy to a tired team-member.  People learn most after a settling in period, and then learning declines, so don’t swap too often, but don’t leave people to stagnate with little new to learn.

9. Greater Authority

If your team has been working together for a while, consider the development each member has been through and review how much autonomy, control and authority each person has.  Can you give them more, to both challenge and refresh them and lighten your own load?

10. New Blood

Maybe it’s time for a small change.  Bringing in an outsider or two can shake up the team, put them on their mettle, and introduce new thinking.  sadly, this may mean benching a valuable team member, but done well, this can be their chance to continue growing, when they have out-grown the role they are in.

Brilliant Project Leader
What the best project leaders know, do and say to get results, every time.

“This has the ability to greatly enhance your effectiveness and capability.
It is a must read for all current or aspiring project leaders.”

Charles Vivian
Head of Programme and Project Leadership
North Highland UK

The Project Management Book Club

I am delighted to have been invited to take part in The Project Management Book Club.

The Project Management Bookclub

If you do not know it – and are committed to developing your PM skills – you should.

It is run by Thomas Kennedy. He describes it as “the online book club for project managers and project teams. We bring together people from around the globe to study and discuss books about project management WITH the book authors!”

You can see why I might feel honoured.

You can visit the site, at www.pmbookclub.com.

But more urgent by far, please sign up to the LinkedIn Group and then vote for Brilliant Project Leader as the next book to study: http://lnkd.in/MqKAui.

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

Who Stole my People? Five Ways out of the Nightmare of Resource Theft

We have all been there.  By “all”, I mean any experienced Project or Programme Manager working in the real world of competing projects and territory-hungry sponsors and “C”-level executives.

Alpha and Zeta

Let me offer a basic scenario: your Project Alpha is one of several running within your organisation and, you are pleased to say, it’s running pretty well.  So what are the great rewards and honours that are coming your way as a result?  Well, not so fast!

Instead, when Project Zeta starts to run into problems due to bad planning, bad luck, bad leadership or some perfect storm of all three, its increasingly desperate sponsor comes knocking on your door.  Not for sage advice or the wisdom you have carefully accumulated.  No, what they want is your most precious resources: your people.

A Widespread problem

Organisations that juggle multiple projects (and which ones don’t) all face this problem.  There is a constant scramble for scarce resources with particular skills, experience or simply for those people in our organisations who just get things done.  This has a corrosive effect on your ability to deliver your projects effectively but, perhaps more important, it hits hard at the organisation’s long-term ability to deliver strategic change.

What, then, is to be done?

There are many components to a working solution to this and none is an easy or quick fix.  Implementing them all in conjunction with one another, however, will have a profound effect on your organisation’s ability to deliver strategic change and therefore to stay agile, retain value and build contribution.

Strategy 1: Selecting Well

Portfolio management and the ability to select a balanced set of programmes and projects that can be delivered within your resource constraints is the first and most strategic approach.  Select your initiatives well, not only to match them to your resources, but also to create a clear case for supporting them against other, operational, pressures.

Strategy 2: Planning

No surprises here but, truly, how many project and programme managers really invest the time and energy needed to develop a robust plan, with tested estimates and prudent contingencies, for their resource requirements.  I know you do, but if every PPM in your organisation did too, then there would be far fewer problems.

Strategy 3: Central Control and Governance

You want a resource: you come and see the top banana.  This is not about creating a bureaucracy, a power base or a roadblock.  It is about recognising that if people really are your most valuable resource, then like the gold at Fort Knox (is there still gold at Fort Knox?), it needs to have someone strong guarding access.  This is about good governance and the ability for one, suitably qualified and senior, person or group to make strategic judgements that give all of the projects and programmes their due weight.

Strategy 4: Contingency

I know that no organisation in its right mind will employ people to twiddle their thumbs until an emergency arises…  except, maybe, the fire service, or the ambulance service (they are separate in the UK), or the army, or the coast-guard, or…

Okay, so some would and we willingly, as a society, make those investments – and that’s what they are – to manage risk.  So aim to have some surplus resource available at times of pinch points in major programmes or projects.  Central planning of resource calls should allow this.  Think of it as an investment in risk management for your portfolio, rather than as an overhead on your salary bill.

Strategy 5: Change the Culture

One of the driving cultural norms is that senior executives are rewarded for delivering their projects or programmes to time, cost and quality.  This causes parochial behaviours and the development of neo-mediaeval fiefdoms within organisations.  Instead, create shared accountability across a whole portfolio.  In mediaeval France, kings stopped their Counts and Barons warring with each other by calling them all up to fight wars with other states.  Now, they need to negotiate with a war council for the men and machines to fight on the front to which they were directed.  This worked, and it can work in modern organisations.  It is not so much divide and rule as unify and lead.

What other strategies are there? 

Please do add your own strategies in the comments.

Brilliant Project Leader Interview with Guerrilla Project Management

Samad AidaneA couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Samad Aidane for his excellent Guerrilla Project Management blog.  Samad was interviewing me about my latest book, Brilliant Project Leader.

Samad was a thoughtful and patient interviewer who had prepared well.  I enjoyed my conversation with him immensely and I think his work really shows in the resulting interview.

He has also edited the sound file carefully, so although it is a long interview, it is easy to listen to.

Extremely Wide Ranging

In the 45 minutes or so we were talking, Samad covered a phenomenally wide range of topics.  Here are some of the questions we discuss:

  • Brilliant Project Leader by Mike ClaytonWhat was the background for writing “Brilliant Project Leader” and what do you tell people who think there is already a successful book called “Brilliant Project Manager” so why book about Brilliant Project Leader?
  • Mike’s first rule of teams: you get the team you deserve. What do you mean by this principle?
  • You identify 4 essential components for leading project teams: The individual, the plan, the team, and the communication. Give us a brief overview of these components.
  • One of the many things I like about the book is how you provide the essential leadership skills for each stage of the project. You talk about three key leadership skills for the definition stage: Managing upward, stakeholder management, and negotiation. Why are these skills critical for this stage?
  • To help with negotiation, you provide the FARB Process for structuring arguments. Can you explain the process?
  • You recommend to plan in milestones that will allow us to mark and celebrate success at regular and frequent intervals. Why is this important planning principle regardless of the methodology one uses?
  • Securing commitment from our project team members can be extremely challenging and at times frustrating. Talk about your recommendation for how we can effectively secure commitment from our team members and especially about the “Jiminy Cricket Effect”
  • Controlling changes to the original scope can generate intense emotional conflict. You describe the wrong way and the right way in dealing with requests for change. Can you give us your recommendations on the most effective way of dealing with changes to project scope?
  • Communicating setbacks is one of the most challenging aspects of leading projects, especially for first time project managers. You recommend an effective approach for delivering bad news. What’s your approach?
  • You emphasize the importance of giving feedback and you provide an effective way of having the conversation about feedback. Can you share with us your approach?
  • You say that “In tough times, project management is not enough. People get scared and uncertain and need leadership to keep them working effectively” and you talk about two concepts: “structure of resistance” and “Timing and leadership”. Can you elaborate on these two concepts?
  • I loved the Drama Triangle you describe in the section about project team leadership in tough times. Can you describe the Drama Triangle?
  • I also loved the SCOPE process: the Five step process for mentally taking control of bad situations. Can you talk to us a little bit about this process?

Listen to the Interview at Guerrilla Project Management

The full interview is available for you to listen to – or download onto your portable device – at guerrillaprojectmanagement.com.

Guerrilla Project Management

Initiative Overload and Project Prioritisation

Rudi Burkhard posted a comment on a LinkedIn forum that caught my attention.

Rudi advocates for reducing the number of projects that an organisation does.  His argument – which I completely buy on experiential grounds in the absence of systematic evidence one way or the other – is that when organisations cut down on the number of projects they do, it has a positive effect on their bottom line.  It would be great to learn of some systematic research.

Why do so many Organisations Resist Rationalising their Project Portfolios?

I do not doubt that there are a myriad of reasons for this, so I will isolate just five.

Reason 1: Patronage

Rudi addresses the very real factor of senior people “sponsoring” a project with patronage and political pressure.  Where they are unaware of the global resource constraints and the competing merits of alternative projects in terms of absolute and relative contributions to strategy or bottom line, this is nothing more than blind parochialism.  It is a breach of good governance and needs to stop.

Human nature being what it is, however…  it won’t.

Reason 2: It’s all too difficult

Set aside the very real inter-personal difficulties of tackling this head on with all of your senior managers, the rational task of gathering evidence and comparing very different projects across a large organisation can be monstrously complex, time consuming and costly.  There are tools available and skilled facilitators ready and willing to help, but there is no published methodology that I am aware of and what tools there are are very much unfamiliar to board members.

Being difficult is no excuse whatsoever for tackling a business-essential problem.

Reason 3: Is it Really Essential?

Yes, it is.  However, there is a tendency to perceive project activity as peripheral to your organisation’s principal operational activities.  So here’s a challenge.  Look at the capital and revenue forecasts for the biggest 20% of projects in your organisation .  Double the figures to get a very crude estimate that includes the long tail (you’ve probably grossly under-estimated).  Now express these as a percentage of your entire annual revenue and capital forecast across the organisation.

Does the time your top executives allocate to projects as a percentage of their work time reflect this figure?  If anything, since projects are higher risk endeavours than operations, the time allocated to them should be disproportionately high.

Reason 4: Loss Aversion

risk aversion is a psychological observation that we a predisposed to act in a way that prevents us from losing what we already have. If we have an opportunity, or we have an idea, or we have an investment part-made, we will fight to protect it.  This is an irrational response which can only be countered by compelling oursleves to look at all of the competing ideas and investments in the context of true resource constraints.

Psychology is against you.

Reason 5: Lessons Unlearned

This is the big one for me.  Most lists of causes of project failure do not include project overload.  There is a very good reason for this: they look at “proximate causes” – the immediate reasons for the failure, such as:

  1. Lack of clear links between the project and the organisation’s key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success.
  2. Lack of clear senior management and Ministerial ownership and leadership.
  3. Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders.
  4. Lack of skills and proven approach to project management and risk management.
  5. Too little attention to breaking development and implementation into manageable steps.
  6. Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price rather than long-term value for money (especially securing delivery of business benefits).
  7. Lack of understanding of, and contact with the supply industry at senior levels in the organisation.
  8. Lack of effective project team integration between clients, the supplier team and the supply chain.

This is a list provided by the (now defunct) UK Office for Government Commerce in their leaflet: Common Causes of Project Failure.

However, why do so many of these occur so frequently – especially when project managers know all about them?  I believe that one common root cause is project overload.  The problem is that we too often see immediate cause, accept it as a sufficient explanation, and look no further.

The “so what?”

Bring in outsiders.  Not necessarily an objective voice, but certainly a skilled consultant who can guide you through the process and facilitate your strategic decision making.  Done correctly, the cost can be a tiny fraction of the value at risk.

Entrepreneurial Project Management

TheApprenticeUK readers will know that I followed the recent UK series of The Apprentice in some detail, blogging about the lessons learned and the strengths and flaws of the last six candidates, ultimately predicting the winner.


This year’s series was not about getting a job, but getting backing – in cash and kind – for an entrepreneurial venture.  This meant that Lord Sugar was looking for more than jus an competent manager: he was after a business partner.

A Healthy Attitude to Risk

It also meant that he was looking out for signs of entrepreneurship, which includes a “healthy” attitude to risk-taking.  By “healthy”, I mean that an entrepreneur has to be comfortable in the the presence of risk and be prepared to take risks, to reap rewards.

This is a fine balancing act: the entrepreneur must take risks without being reckless.  They must also be able to not worry about risks, without treating them casually.  Does this sound familiar?

“Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes”

So said one of Lord Sugar’s trusted advisors, referring to contestant Helen Milligan, who looked every bit the accomplished corporate professional, but little like the “classic” entrepreneur.  I said much the same thing in a blog.  The level of risk-comfort is one of the many variables and I like to think of myself as a risk-averse entrepreneur.  I’ve started businesses and I have invested; yet I have always managed the risk profile to an objectively low level.  For example, this blog is still hosted for free (Mr Cheapskate) by the wonderful WordPress.com.

So, it should come as no surprise that I consider Project Management an entrepreneurial occupation.  We meet the criteria and certainly spend our lives assessing, balancing and managing risks.  we also invest: not just our client’s money (which is far from entrepreneurial) but our time and reputations.

Project Managers as Entrepreneurs

Just like the many varieties of entrepreneur (I have catalogued seven types so far in my on-going project to understand entrepreneurship, and have so far put two into the public domain), there are many varieties of project manager.  In Risk Happens!, I identify four types of project manager.


Can Project Managers truly act as Entrepreneurs?

It’s clear that entrepreneurs need to manage projects, but can a day-to-day project manager, working inside an organisation or for a client, be an entrepreneur?

By a strict definition of the word entrepreneur: no.  My trusty Collins defines “entrepreneur” thus:

“the owner or manager of a business enterprise who,
by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits”

As project managers, we attempt to deliver products, deliverables, outcomes, and even, arguably, benefits.  These benefits may be in the form of profits, but this is not necessarily the case.  And neither is it the case that not-for-profit projects simply make us into social entrepreneurs.  But there is one thing we can be…

Project managers as Intrapreneurs

If the word “intrapreneur” is new to you, take a look at the Wikipedia article on intrapreneurship (it’s far better than the overlapping article: intrapreneur).  Essentially, an intrepreneur is someone who acts like an entrepreneur, but from within a stable organisation.

Employees who create their own projects in contexts such as research organisations like Hewlett Packard, IBM, Lockheed Martin and Google are entrepreneurs.  But as a long-time fan of Tom Peters’ admittedly over-the top book, The Project 50, I think it is incumbent on all of us to bring some entrepreneurial flair to our projects.

I am not saying you should be increasing the risk profile of a project or changing its goals beyond those of your client or sponsor – either would be negligent.  But I do think that the passion, flair and initiative that entrepreneurs bring to their ventures is valuable to project managers, as is their sense of absolute commitment.

The “so what?”

When you are leading a project, balance risks carefully, take the risks you must and manage them well, and bring a flavour of entrepreneurialism to your projects that feels authentic to you and energises the team around you.

Professionalism + Flair = Leadership