Solution to the Project Management Dilemma

So how can association sustain the benefits of project management, and avoid the problems?

Generally speaking, project management in many associations needs to be brought back into the fold. Although every organization has a unique set of circumstances, there are common high level actions to be taken:

  • Expand the current definition of project management to take a more holistic view of projects from the very infancy of an idea, through business casing and approvals, through the traditional domain of project management, to a deliberate post implementation review.
  • Tier your projects based on criteria that are important to your association, and right-size the project management process so that not all projects are created equally. The discipline and rigor applied to each initiative needs to be commensurate with the relative importance of the initiative.
  • Provide basic training for all the players in project management including sponsors, internal clients, and end users.

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Project management has come a long way, but we need to take deliberate steps to ensure that it continues to add value. Successful PM should create just enough process to meet objectives and present itself in the form of useful tools rather than bureaucracy.

When Project Management Takes on a Life of its Own

Any organization looking to make major changes, or add new products or systems, has found tremendous benefit in project management. Over the past decade, organizations have directed substantial resources to the project management discipline. The process and skill-set has matured and improved dramatically and has been so successful that project management has taken on a life of its own.

Through powerful Project Management Offices (PMO’s), the discipline has grown as an increasingly stand-alone entity disjointed from strategy, innovation, and resource allocation. Many of today’s PMO’s lack the organizational context to add additional value to their organization and its goals.

 

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As project management becomes increasingly disjointed from both strategy and operations, many organizations have experienced painful side effects. With project managers and PMO’s pushing for greater autonomy to practice their craft, internal clients treat them more like a supplier than an internal partner. This more distant relationship, coupled with ever increasing expectations to deliver more for less, has led to a growing phenomenon of game playing between internal clients and project managers.

There are a multitude of scenarios, this is just one:

  • An internal client or user group defines a need to execute a project
  • The client and PMO define a reasonable set of business requirements necessary to achieve the objectives of the project
  • The Project Manager uses available information and due diligence to provide a reasonable estimate of dollars and time to deliver the project as defined by the agreed upon business requirements
  • The internal client pushes back on everything but the deliverables, with the general threat that if the project can’t deliver all the scope in a shorter time and for less money, then there won’t be a project
  • The PMO capitulates, and the project proceeds
  • The project goes off the rails, and the deliverables are cut to keep the project within budget and on time
  • The PMO presses the issue of the original estimate, the internal client pushes back again, and the PMO capitulates again
  • The project continues to fall off the rails and functionality continues to be pared down to keep the project on schedule
  • The project is delivered on time and on budget with a fraction of the required functionality, and Phase Two is born

 

This scenario may be familiar if you have experience with large organizations. The other common side effect is when an organization can execute projects well, but those projects aren’t necessarily aligned to the strategy. This is at the heart of the planning/execution gap that we talked about in a previous blog; and a portion of the blame is often traced back to a project management process that is disjointed from the greater operational context.

Next we’ll take a look at how to maintain the benefits of project management and avoid the problems.

 

A Few More Essential Facilitation Guidelines

Here are a few more guidelines to help you facilitate an engaging and impactful meeting:

Encourage Participation

Encouraging group discussion will help you cover all points of view and ideas. This will create better quality decisions as well as highly motivated participants; they will feel that attending your meetings is worthwhile. When participants see their impact on the decision making process, ideas, and activities, commitment to the plan improves. If one or two people monopolize your meeting, the quality of the plans you produce will suffer.

Keep Track of Key Items

Have someone other than the chair or facilitator record key decisions and action items. It is not necessary to record every detail, but make sure you capture the key points, and reiterate them when appropriate.

 

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Meeting Follow Up

Within 24 hours circulate a brief report on decisions, individual responsibilities, next steps, next meeting dates, and so on. Quick action reinforces the importance of meeting and reduces errors of memory. Finally, follow up to see that the actions are being taken. If you do not follow up, all your effort may be wasted.

Almost everything about running a successful meeting involves being deliberate in what you do and say. Flip charts work well, because when you write something down, participants will disagree if you misrepresented their intentions. Verbally reiterating a participant’s point, or summarizing the conversation also works well. Give your participants every opportunity to speak up if they disagree. It is better to have disagreement happen during the meeting rather than after its finished.

One More Facilitation Tip

Many people say that speakers tend to rely on PowerPoint as a crutch, and that “good” speakers should be able to get on without. That may be true for speakers, but having a PowerPoint to give you cues, and guide your participants through your agenda can be an invaluable tool for facilitating a meeting.

Take the main items of your agenda and create a slide for each, and fill in the sub points as they make sense. Having this visual helper up on a screen throughout your meetings is a great way to let participants know where you are at in your process – and they usually appreciate the reference.

 

What are some other ways association professionals can further strengthen facilitation skills?

Essential Facilitation Guidelines

When you facilitate a meeting, these essential guidelines will help ensure a successful meeting for both team leader and participants:

Be Prepared

Arrive early to make sure any necessary equipment is set up and ready to operate at the start of the meeting. If you are not fully prepared when the meeting begins, you will waste time and appear unprofessional.

Start and Finish on Time

Always start and finish meetings on time regardless of late participants. Try to avoid restarting the meeting or recapping information for those who were late. This is tough to do with senior folks, but they will respect you for it. Always adjourn at least 5-10 minutes before your scheduled finish time, so participants can arrive on time for their next meeting. If you already have a culture where being on time is expected, this will be easy, if you have the other kind of culture…be tough.

 

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Stick to the Agenda

Stick to your agenda and keep conversation focused on the topic – don’t wait until the end of the meeting to try to catch up. Feel free to ask for only constructive and non-repetitive comments. Tactfully end discussions when they are getting nowhere.

Open with your Objective, and Close with your Accomplishments

Briefly reiterate purposes and established ground rules at the beginning of your meeting. End with a summary of accomplishments, clarification of agreements, and next steps.

Actively Manage your Meeting

Actively manage the meeting with three responsibilities in mind: stay on track, stimulate participation, and accomplish your objectives. Don’t allow participants to take your meeting off agenda. The best way to do this successfully is to manage your agenda in chunks. Don’t wait until the end of the meeting to try and get back on schedule. Park any off-topic items for discussion at the end of the meeting or at a later date.

 

 

7 Principles of Strategic Imperatives: Part 2

Previously, we covered the first three principles required for effectively formatting, creating, writing, and managing Strategic Imperatives. Our list of principles continues below:

4. Strategic Imperatives should be inspirational

Setting up strategic imperatives are one of the first steps of using the strategy of an organization to drive action, and as such, they should be inspiring. Inspiration needs to be grounded in reality, avoid vagueness and feel good statements. To achieve this without speaking in platitudes, ensure each strategic imperative:

  • Is as specific as reasonable, given that it is strategic
  • Will be a stretch to accomplish without being so far out that it creates a sense of hopelessness
  • Is well written and presented in clear, concise language, without sounding like marketing
  • Is backed up with the underlying context and assumptions that were used to create them

5. Strategic Imperatives must be Imperative

This may go without saying, but do not allow items to creep into your list of Strategic Imperatives because it seems like the right thing to do.

Articulating even one Strategic Imperative that isn’t really imperative will weaken the whole set, and will sully the process. This is especially true if staff perceive that a Strategic Imperative has been included for political reasons, or that it’s just “lip service”. The first time staff and managers are introduced to the set of Strategic Imperatives, you want them to say “wow, those really are the most important things we need to accomplish, and I want to make my contribution.”

The best example I can give for this comes from my own experience helping clients articulate their Strategic Imperatives. In all the Strategic Imperative sessions I have done, almost without fail, the last Strategic Imperative on the list is titled “Human Resource Strategy” or “Develop the Best People”, or “Training and Development”, or sometimes just “People”. Now these are all great things, but are they imperative? Are they operational, or is it actually imperative that the organization puts a special time constrained emphasis on the development of its people right now?


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7 Principles of Strategic Imperatives: Part 1

Strategic imperatives should follow a specific format that are created, written, and managed with the following principles in mind:

1. Focus on “What”, leave room for “How”

This is a subtle but important part of articulating Strategic Imperatives. Employees want to be informed of the crucial parts of an association’s strategy and given a clear sense of priorities, but they do not want to be told how to do their jobs. This distinction matters, because if you want the Strategic Imperatives to really drive action, then you need association staff to get on board and work towards the solution themselves.

Focusing on “how” to achieve Strategic Imperatives, is restricting and prevents employees from coming up with the best approach for execution. By putting focus on what needs to be done, rather than how to do it, will produce superior results.

2. Define success but not how success will be achieved

This principle builds on number 1. What success looks like for each Strategic Imperative (SI) must be measurable, and specific, but not overly detailed. However, if SI’s are too vague, then staff cannot envision how they can contribute to a solution.

A successful board should be guided by those who bring different perspectives to the table.

3. Communication is key, be careful of spin

In fact, SI’s form a key part of communicating an association’s strategy to staff. This is what strategic imperatives are all about – bridging the gap between strategic and operational planning.

Create the initial set of SI’s completely without spin. Once senior management is united behind the intent of the Strategic Imperatives, then a version can be crafted and broadly communicated. You have a key role in ensuring that SI’s are created without spin, until a decision is made to create a communicable version.

During the process of creating Strategic Imperatives, senior leaders can become overly concerned with what people will think or how the imperatives will sound to staff. Do everything you can to prevent this from happening, otherwise the line becomes blurred between what is spin and what the actual intent of the strategic imperative is.

 

Stay tuned for more principles of strategic imperatives!

Recognizing the Planning-Execution Gap

The Planning-Execution Gap is a phenomenon that rattles almost every organization. The gap comes in all shapes and sizes, but there are important similarities, and you will usually hear people saying things like this: 

  • “We have a clear strategy, but we just can’t seem to execute.”
  • “We’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time, but we just can’t overcome it.”
  • “Only the ED understands everything that’s going on around here.”
  • “We try to be all things to to all people, and everything seems like a priority – but we never get anything done.” 

 

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A big challenge when leading your association through business planning, is bridging the gap between strategy and execution. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of helping your organization’s leaders articulate a nice strategy, but that doesn’t mean it can or will be executed. Many organizations will have a sound strategy at one end of the planning spectrum, and good projects and actions at the other, but the two just do not connect.

The participants in your planning process are human. Sure they would love it if they could execute their plans to move the business forward, but it takes hard work and many don’t really want to make the necessary changes to close the gap.

As a result, many organizations live with the Planning Gap because it is easier to “do” business planning once a year, and forget about it. Everyone seems surprised that very little actually got accomplished in the following year, then justify the shortcomings in a variety of ways, and repeat the process over again. 

 

Start the New Year Right: The Importance of Signing Off

Previously we’ve discussed how keeping progress moving, especially when working with a group, is crucial part of effective leadership. Well 2017 has arrived and with it, the opportunity for association professionals to start the year off on the right foot. A great way to this is by getting sign off’s (whether it is formal or informal), which will ensure everyone is in agreement before you move from one stage to the next.

By knowing where things stand, you have a much better chance of moving to the next stage of the process, rather than people trying to constantly revisit the stage you just finished. Getting a sign off can be as simple as sending an e-mail that says: “I am looking for approval to proceed based on where we are right now, which is…”

If you reach agreement in a meeting, write it on a flip chart, and have everyone grab a marker and sign their name. If there is any hesitation as to the agreement, you will hear about it.

As the person driving the process, you need to consistently test that you still have a strong mandate to move forward, and getting sign off at major process points is absolutely critical.

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Your Role in Effective Business Planning: Know When to Take it Offline

An important role in effective association planning is to keep things moving smoothly, so whenever you are working with a group of people and progress becomes stagnant, you feel bogged down, or when a high level of agreement on a certain point is required, it might be a good idea to take the details off-line.

When this happens we recommend the following:

  • Call a break, and talk to the boss – or better yet talk to the 2 or 3 people that are causing the deadlock, and ask them how they propose to solve it so the group can move forward. This works like a charm.
  • Ask who would like to work out the details and bring back a proposal to move forward.
  • “Park” the item to the end of a meeting, or a later date.
  • Suggest that you will take the item off line, and propose a solution.
  • Put a place holder in your document, and keep writing. Highlight it, so you remember to come back to it later.
  • Strive for “conditional agreement”. In a recent executive planning session, an exceptional facilitator asked our non-agreeing participants to list the conditions for success that everyone would need to see in order to agree to the proposal on the table. This not only highlighted the hesitation in the room, but also allowed us to move forward.

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Best Practices for Effective Vision Statement Sessions – Part 2

Last week we discussed the importance of a strong practical vision statement and 5 ways to go about facilitating sessions for it. Here is some continued insight into association planning and executing effective vision statement sessions for your team.

 

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Work in a group:

From experience I can tell you that articulating a practical vision statement is nearly impossible with only 1-3 people. There really is incredible synergy in the wisdom of a group. These leaders will need to define and execute the strategy to achieve the vision, and if they had a role in the creation of the vision, the chances of successful execution are much higher.

Include the right people:

The vision is owned by the senior team of any organization, in particular the CEO or ED. If the entire senior team can’t make it to the session, reschedule.

Take it off-site:

Take your team somewhere you won’t be distracted by everything that goes on in the office. Just getting away really helps give everyone a fresh perspective. In many of the organizations I work with, taking the team off-site sends a signal to the teams, and the other employees, that the work is important.

Work from the bottom up:

Although the overall process is more or less top down, describing the practical vision of the organization is the wrong time for a top down exercise. Using all of the techniques listed here, brainstorm as many components of the future state of the organization as possible, and then group all the things that fit together to come up with the main components of your practical vision statement. This not only makes a better statement, it ensures that everyone is heard, and that the vision of a few people isn’t forced on everyone.

Forget about spin:

This is a confidential session of the organization’s most senior people, which means everything should be on the table, and nothing should be sacred. Very specifically tell your participants that it is their job to articulate the true, raw, vision of the future. Repackaging and communicating the practical vision statement is a job for another day. When you see spin happening during your session, do your best to stop it, your participants will thank you later.

Stay away from strategy:

Although the practical vision statement is part of strategic planning, this is not a strategy. I can’t express how important this is: The practical vision is a statement of what the organization looks like at a specific point in time in the future. How we will get there will come later in our process. The entire business plan will depend on the foundation of a practical vision statement, so make sure it is solid.

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