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Sharpen your Project Management Saw in 2017

Project Management 2017A new year is upon us. What better time to review how you can continue to develop as a project manager and sharpen your saw.

A good place to start would be to look back at what happened last year.

What went really well on your projects and what achievements are you proud of? It’s important that you take time to savor the sweet moments and pat yourself on the back, as you can’t be sure that anyone else will do it.

Look back through your calendar and notice all the things you did. Reviewing your achievements reminds you of how far you have come and what you have learnt. It will give you renewed energy for the year ahead.

At the same time you also need to consider what didn’t go so well. What feedback did you receive – directly or indirectly – from clients, peers and bosses, and what does it tell you about the areas you need to improve on?

The feedback you received shouldn’t be seen as “negative” but as an opportunity to grow and continue to develop. We all have areas we need to improve on and it’s much better to be conscious about them as that means you can do something about it.

In addition to reviewing your achievements and development areas based on actual feedback, I propose that you extend the review to also include the areas of self-improvement that I have highlighted below.

The development areas fall into the categories of leading others, leading self and leading the project and will therefore be a thorough review for you. Read through each of the areas and score yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is the lowest score and 10 is the highest. The development areas where you score the lowest are those that you need to focus on the most in 2017.


Leading others

1. To what extent are you able to fully engage and motivate others?

Are you paying sufficient attention to how you motivate your team and make each member feel appreciated and included?

Studies show that high performance occurs when all members of a team communicate and contribute in roughly the same amounts – something which is made possible when people feel safe to express their views and ideas without being criticized or dismissed.

During team meetings, encourage people to share what’s on their mind and close the meeting by inviting those who haven’t yet contributed to share what’s on their mind. You can also encourage team members to speak up during your one-2-one’s, which shouldn’t be spent just tracking progress and talking about tasks and assignments. They should also address how you work together.

Ask the team member if they feel that the delegation and escalation process between you is working and if they’re getting the support and guidance from you that they need. Make 2017 the year when you initiate these kinds of honest and direct conversations and really value your team members input.


Project Leadership2. How good are you at holding people to account?

As much as you need to support, encourage and listen to your team members, you also need to challenge them and hold them to account. Otherwise high performance is unlikely to happen.

As it can be truly motivating to have clear performance targets, mutually agree measurable goals and objectives for all assignments. Remember that it’s not your role to singlehandedly set the targets. Ideally targets and SMART measures should be set by the individual team member based on their own analysis and estimates.

When team members set their own targets in terms of when a task will be delivered and how quality will be measured, it’s much easier for you to hold them to account. On the contrary it’s almost impossible to hold someone accountable to something they have not been part of agreeing.


3. To what degree do you tailor your communication to your stakeholders?

Do you understand who all your stakeholders are and do you tailor your approach and method of communication to each of them?

Some people say that you have to treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself, but it’s far better to treat people the way they would like to be treated. Everyone has different communication preferences.

Some of your stakeholders would like you to drop them an email straight away to inform them of what is happening. Other’s preference is that you tell them at your regular catch-up – or that you escalate to them via a weekly status report. Don’t make the mistake of treating everyone the same. Instead ask your most important clients and stakeholders how they would like you to keep them informed. Some may need a bit of time to consider your question, as they may never have been asked before.


Leading self


4. To what degree do you have a mindset of success?

Are you able to focus all of your energy on being the best leader you can of your project, or do your thoughts from time to time sidetrack and sabotage you? What are some of the stories you are telling yourself? Perhaps a little voice inside of you is saying that you are not experienced enough to lead the project, not technical enough, not old enough or perhaps too old?

Studies show that up to 75% of people’s thoughts tend to be negative, which means that we are our own worst enemy. To be a successful project manager you have to manage your thoughts and remove the negative ones as you would weeds in a garden. If you feel your knowledge is not up to scratch, sign up to a course or find a mentor, but don’t beat yourself up with self-deprecating thoughts. Simply become conscious about what you are thinking and deliberately substitute any limiting beliefs with a set of more empowering ones. If you’re unsure how to do it, find a coach who can help you.

Project Management Scheduling5. How good is your ability to mange time?

Are you working proactively and do you get through most of your scheduled tasks during a working day?

To be as effective as you can in 2017 you must take control of time and manage it well instead of letting time manage you. If you feel that you’re not getting enough work done, block out some time in the morning where you work uninterruptedly on your most important tasks. Resist the temptation to clear the small items first and be careful not to multitask, as it will dramatically lower your focus and productivity. If you manage to get most of your big tasks done early in the day it doesn’t matter that the remainder of the day is consumed by interruptions, meetings and urgent issues.


6. To what degree are you able to control your impulses and emotions?

There are many situations on a project that can trigger your emotions, and if you’re not careful they can cause you to overreact and to do or say things that you will later regret. When a team member hasn’t completed the work they said they would, when a stakeholder changes their mind about a requirement or if an unexpected issue crops up, it can cause you stress and trigger an emotional reaction.

Noticing your emotions is a good thing, but reacting unduly – or overreacting – because you feel angry, upset or afraid should for the most part be avoided. Form the habit in 2017 to become aware of how you feel about a situation and consciously choose how you want to respond. Never send an email or give instructions to a team member when you feel angry. First find a way to calm yourself down so that you can think clearly. You can do that by slowing down, breathing deeply or going for a walk.


Leading the Project


7. How good are you at scheduling retrospectives?

Do you regularly take time out to validate that your project is headed in the right direction and to assess what you can improve and change going forward?

Having regular retrospectives is an essential part of leading a project because it enables you to course correct and engage the team in the process. Some of the questions you can ask of the team are: What is working really well for other teams and in other industries that we can replicate? What does our gut tell us about the project? Which bad decisions have we made that need to be reverted? What would we do differently if we bet our own money on this? What do our customers and executives keep complaining about? What can we do about it? What are we not seeing that is new or different?


Business Case8. How certain are you that the project has a strong business case?

The purpose of your project is to deliver specific outputs and outcomes to your client or project sponsor, right? Well, that’s partly right.

The ultimate purpose is for those outputs and outcomes to add value and deliver the business benefits. Many project managers conveniently forget this last step as they believe that it’s the sponsor’s or client’s responsibility to ensure that a valid business case is in place. But outstanding project managers are more than happy to co-own the business case and actively take an interest in helping to realize it. How good are you personally at understanding the project’s ultimate purpose and the wider business context of your project?

If you feel that this is a weak spot I’d encourage you to make it a priority this year. Few things are more powerful on a project than understanding the business aspect.


Now that you have carried out your review and written down your scores, choose three areas to work on this year. Don’t overcommit yourself by setting too ambitious goals. Small, steady baby-steps is the best way to move forward and set yourself up for success.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
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 (Jan 2015).

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).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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