PM-Foundations – “H” is for Humble

A few weeks ago I listened to the eulogies at my father-in-law’s memorial service and reflected on the fact that it was not what he had accomplished in his lifetime that was so important, but rather how he accomplished it. My father-in-law was an accomplished mechanical engineer who during his time a McDonnell Aircraft was involved in testing the first Mercury space capsule prior to its flight. He moved with his family to Dayton in 1960, and was employed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he spent 30 years as a Structural Test Engineer. During his career, he was responsible for conducting full-scale tests and is the author of many technical reports describing these tests. He received numerous awards and letters of commendation for his work during his career. During all his years as an engineer, he was most known for the dedicated and unassuming manner in which he led these mission critical tests. This humble and committed approach carried over to his personal life as a husband, father, and grandfather. He was the person that would quietly “step up” and solve problems, whether it was finding the missing homework, or picking up the grandchildren from a band competition.

I share these thoughts about my father-in-law because I think they are very relevant in the context of the role of a project manager. The project manager role is responsible for leading the team to achieve specific project goals and objectives. Team members tend to more clearly remember and describe how the goals and objectives were achieved, vs. if they were achieved. Traditional project leadership involves a command and control type of approach, with the project manager monitoring and directing activities. In contrast, the servant leadership style puts the needs of the team member first, and the project manager’s role is focused on supporting project activities and removing roadblocks. I am not saying that there is one “right answer” to the appropriate project leadership style, but I do believe I would prefer to be remembered as a hardworking and humble project leader, than a hard-driving and demanding project leader. The servant leadership style creates a high degree of engagement and participation of team members in decision-making, as the project manager encourages and supports team members to leverage their full potential and abilities. Below I highlight several ways that a project manager can take a more humble and supportive approach, while still leading the team to successful project outcomes.

7 ways to be humble while leading a project team

As a project manager, there are a number of tangible things that you can do to establish a servant leadership approach to project management. This approach places heavy emphasis on creating a fully engaged team, establishing a positive project environment, and focusing on supporting vs. directing project activities. These 7 tips represent a combination of applying servant leadership based skills, and implementing practical techniques to enhance the project environment.

1. Articulate the Vision & Emphasize Teamwork – I spend a lot of time making sure the project team understands that they are a team working towards a common objective, and not a bunch of individuals assigned to a project. Establishing a group that works as a team starts with making sure the team understands what we are trying to accomplish, and what success looks like. It also includes ensuring that everyone has internalized what their role is on the team, and how their role connects with the success of the overall project. There are things you can do to make sure the group feels like a team. Schedule regular team interactions (team meetings), provide meaningful project updates, and promote collaboration / interaction. Unless this group has worked together before, it takes some real work and focus on your part to make the group feel and interact like a team. Do not be discourage or give up as the team traverses through the forming and storming phases of creating a team. Your leadership can make a significant difference in terms of how the team works together.

2. Focus on Facilitating vs. Directing – Much of what a project manager does involves facilitation – enabling project teams to collaborate to get work done. Project managers facilitate meetings, decision making, and issue resolution (to name a few). Effective facilitators understand the impartial role of the facilitator, ask good questions to promote meaningful discussions, and leverage facilitation tools to achieve the desire results. Facilitation encourages team members to perform project work in a highly collaborative manner.

3. Exercise Active Listening – Active listening is required to understand what people are working on, identify challenges team members have encountered, and capture ideas to improve project performance. Active listening also provides the project manager with better “peripheral vision” (things that are not in the project manager’s direct line of sight) to identify potential problems or risks. Many project managers feel that leading involves a lot of talking, and I would argue that leading involves much more listening.

4. Leverage the Talents of the Team – As the team is forming, it is important to get to know the individual team members. Not only do you need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, but also what are the things that motivate and energize them. If you have insights into team member’s professional development path, you can help align work with the areas where they have talents, are excited about, and/or desire to learn. Aligning work and responsibilities in a manner that gives people a chance to “step up” on the team goes on a long ways towards building a highly motivated team that delivers positive results. The opportunities on the team can be both in the form of specific work assignments, as well as roles (e.g., facilitation of team meetings, coordination of team events).

5. Be Accountable to the Team –The servant leader will quietly take accountability for actions required to remove roadblocks encountered by the team. You complete these actions with the same diligence and urgency that you would expect from other team members. You don’t want to become the “weakest link” that is responsible for an open issue that blocks progress, and impacts project success.

6. Recognize Contributions – It is extremely important to recognize people’s contributions on the team. There are two categories of contributions that I recognize on the team – (1) efforts that help the team achieve its goals, and (2) efforts that demonstrate or promote teamwork. As the project manager, you are recognizing contributions that helped drive positive project outcomes based upon either the work that was performed, or the way in which it was performed. A significant amount of positive energy can be created on the team by recognizing the right efforts at the right time. The recognition does not need to be elaborate, but it must be sincere, and a bit of creativity helps generate a fun atmosphere on the team.

7. Close the Project – When you have come this far with the team, do not forget to bring appropriate closure to the effort. Effectively facilitating the lessons learned process helps the team reflect on what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and what would the team do differently on the next project. This is the opportunity for the team to have a real impact on how projects are completed within your organization in the form of implementing continuous improvement actions. The other important element of project closure is celebrating success. Facilitate a project celebration that helps team members feel good about was accomplished before they rush off to their next assignment.

This blog post is dedicated in loving memory of Murray N. England (May 7, 1930 – January 24, 2013).

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PM Foundations – An Effective Lessons Learned Process

In my experience, the best practice area that is most often minimized or entirely overlooked is project closure. At the end of a project, project teams are hurriedly preparing to move onto their next assignment, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Implementation of a consistent continuous improvement practice (aka, the lessons learned process) enables the ability to enhance the organization’s project delivery capabilities with the initiation of each project. The overall purpose of the lessons learned process is to identify improvement opportunities (things done well, or areas for improvement), and to initiate actionable next steps. In the context of this discussion, improvement opportunities can relate to both the product that was delivered, as well as how the project was planned and executed.

The lessons learned process should have consistent structure and organization from project to project. The following represents the primary steps in the lessons learned process:

  • Kick-off – The process is initiated with a brief discussion of the purpose of the lessons learned process. Information captured in the project closure survey is helpful to determine the best flow for the initial lessons learned discussion.
  • Capture Ideas – Ideas are generated for each of the project areas (e.g., project phase, functional group, or product category). Again, these ideas represent things done particularly well on the project, or areas for improvement. The facilitated discussion includes a review of ideas captured throughout the project (primarily by the project manager) and from the project closure survey, as well as brainstorming new ideas during the lessons learned meeting.
  • Group into Opportunities – Organize the ideas into groups based upon the type of improvement opportunity.
  • Prioritize – Identify the high priority opportunities, based upon impact of the opportunity (to the product or future projects).
  • Identify & Assign Actions – For the selected opportunities (high priority), identify actions that represent the next step(s) associated with implementing the opportunity. In addition, assign ownership for the opportunity to someone on the team who is responsible for seeing that the next steps are initiated.

Capturing Ideas

There are 3 primary sources of ideas around lesson learned opportunities:

  • Opportunities captured throughout the project. As improvement opportunities are identified throughout the project, they should be captured in a central repository. Particularly for longer projects, these ideas may get lost by the time you get to the end of the project.
  • The themes from the Project Closure Survey represent direct input for capturing ideas about lessons learned opportunities.
  • Through the review of opportunities that have been captured previously, the facilitator prompts the participants to brainstorm additional improvement related ideas.

It is a best practice to attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, work streams, product categories, or functional areas. As with any well facilitated brainstorming session, the facilitator discourages passing judgment on ideas at this point in the process. You are trying to encourage participation in the process from all participants. In addition, using techniques such as having participants write new ideas on post-it notes helps get everyone involved in the process.

Grouping & Prioritizing Ideas

After completing the “brainstorming” process, the facilitator helps the team organize the ideas in groupings of related opportunities. It makes it easier to organize the ideas if they are grouped / organized based upon the type of opportunity (or opportunities that can be addressed with a common set next steps).

During this process it represents a best practice to physically organize the ideas into the related categories. This is either accomplished by re-organizing the post-it notes (posting the ideas on the wall in the groupings), or resorting the ideas captured by a software tool (displaying the ideas in the groupings using tools such as a Excel, Visio or MindMapper).

Once the ideas are grouped, the team works together to identify the high priority opportunities based upon the potential impact associated with each opportunity. This impact could be related to an improvement to the product, or an improvement to the project delivery process (across all projects). The opportunities can either by rated as High, Medium, Low, or ranked from High to Low.

At the end of this process the facilitator is attempting to get people to agree that the “right” opportunities have been identified, and prioritized appropriately.

Many times this point in the process is a good break for the first lessons learned session. The break provides participants time to review and elaborate on the improvement ideas before identifying the next steps.

Identifying & Assigning Actions

After the ideas have been organized and prioritized, the facilitator helps the team identify the appropriate next steps for the high priority opportunities. The next steps identified generally represent actions required to get the improvement opportunities moving in the right direction (vs. the exact steps to solve/implement the improvement). The facilitator should steer the team away from getting into a detailed discussion on how to solve the problem.

At this point in the process the team is also looking for people that can “own” the problem, or at least take ownership for the problem to the point that the next steps are initiated. The “owner” is generally somebody that either has accountabilities tied to the opportunity, or the passion/desire to help move the opportunity forward.

Managing Action Items

The single biggest complaint or “pitfall” associated with the lessons learned process is that nothing happens with the feedback that is captured after the project is closed and the team members return to their “regular” jobs. Sometimes this happens because the action items generated out of the process are not “actionable” enough to be implemented, but more often than not it is because there is not a group or process that is responsible for making sure there is the appropriate follow-through for the continuous improvement ideas and actions..

Part of creating a culture of continuous improvement is ensuring that there is the appropriate hand-off between the project team that identified the opportunity and the team that is responsible for implementing it. In a best case scenario, someone from the project team that is passionate about the opportunity can be part of solving the problem, but this is not always the case. Some practical ideas on where to go with the opportunities / action items from the project team:

  • Continuous Improvement Initiatives – If the opportunity is large or strategic in nature, a continuous improvement initiative may be launched to implement the action item(s). Like any other initiative, it will require adequate sponsorship and resources to be successful.
  • Project Operations – A client may have organizations that are responsible for taking learnings from initiatives and implementing continuous improvement ideas/actions (e.g., project office). The hand-off in this case is generally a presentation of the high priority opportunities and proposed next steps from the project team, and agreement on initiatives the project office should include in the future plans for their area.
  • Product Releases – Many times the improvement opportunities are associated with the product. In this case the opportunities and justification would be presented to members of the team that is leading the next product releases (or managing the on-going support of the product). This is the scenario where it is most likely that a member of the current project team would be part of the implementation of the continuous improvement opportunities.

Upon completion of the feedback process, and hand-off of the recommended next steps, it is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure that the process and supporting documentation is documented and stored in the project files. A summary of the process and recommended next steps will become part of the final project report. The supporting details should become part of the documents archived in the project files. This becomes a valuable asset for use by members of the project office or future project teams.

7 Lessons Learned Best Practices

  1. Timing – The lessons learned session can be performed at the end of the project, or at the end of major milestones/project phases (retrospective at the end of each sprint in the Agile world).
  2. Guided Discussion – Attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, product categories, or functional areas. Generally if the discussion is “guided” (vs. randomly generated), the discussion is more organized and more likely to cover all aspects of the project.
  3. Organizing Improvement Ideas – Using a tool or physical representation on the wall, re-organize the improvement ideas into groupings. The re-organization process helps the team better visualize the appropriate next steps required to implement improvement ideas.
  4. Accountability – Someone is assigned accountability and responsibility for ensuring that something happens with the next steps recommended by the project teams. This accountability generally resides in the Project Office (project delivery opportunities) or the Product Maintenance teams (product improvement opportunities).
  5. Impartial Facilitation – To be an effective facilitator, engaging the group and guiding the discussion, it is best to have not been intimately involved in the project. As the project manager it seems natural to facilitate the lessons learned discussions, however that limits your ability to contribute as a participant. Consider engaging an experienced facilitator that has not been actively involved in the project to facilitate the meeting. The facilitator should be provided some level of background on the project (e.g., summary of project closure surveys) to help them better guide the discussion.
  6. Targeted Discussions – Often times it makes sense to break the groups into multiple sessions to focus on specific topics (e.g., components/phase of the project). One caution with this approach is to make sure the discussions are not so focused that you lose the overall cross-functional nature of the lessons learned process.
  7. Meeting Length – Lessons learned meetings that are too long tend to lose energy and focus by the end of the session. Therefore, you have high quality feedback around improvement opportunities and limited direction in terms of what to do about it (action items and assignments). To address this issue it is often helpful to break the lessons learned into two meetings: Meeting #1 = Capture, group & prioritize improvement ideas, and Meeting #2 = Identify & assign action items.