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Managing projects by including change, upskilling people and controlling project progress

Improving decision making through different thinking

As program and project managers we are constantly faced with a myriad of decisions that need to be made. The challenge is how best to support the project team and management in making the key decisions. The natural choice is to fall into known patterns of working, which may be part of the organisations culture. The danger here is that the solution fails to innovate or even leads to the same mistakes being made.

Doing something different often means leading people through a thought process, often introducing new concepts. It can be hard work to persuade people to do things differently. However, by presenting other ways to think about decisions new perspectives can be opened up which allow us to think more broadly. The best way to change people’s mind is to use an example people respect and understand – likely from a commonly known business related to your sector. This may even be a previous place of work. This can help open people’s minds and help allow them to think about how new approaches can work within their organization.

So don’t be afraid about bringing in examples from other workplaces, or businesses and don’t be afraid to challenge existing ways of thinking. Of course, communicating new ideas has to be done carefully, although this does not mean cautiously. Be ambitious. But also be prepared to walk through the process, and understand that new approaches won’t be fully accepted until they have proven their value. Start small if you need to, you can plan to build or implement fast.

Remember the goal of bring in different thinking is to add value to the project in hand, by offering new perspectives that allow us to reflect on what is done and how it can be done differently or better. Projects that seek to change a situation or identify a number of issues are good candidates for this approach, but there is no reason not to think about different ways of thinking in any project.

Upskilling a project team

People usually don’t start a job without the skills they need. But the demands of projects often mean people are asked to perform tasks which are new to them and out of their comfort zone. The question for a PM is how to identify support measures and to ensure that these are in place, and if this is not possible how to bring in additional skills or mitigate the issue for your project.

I’ve often seen people being asked to perform tasks for which they are not fully equipped. This can be the case after a re-organisation, or simply because there is no one else available with the right skills. Sending someone on a training session is certainly a good response, but this is often not enough. Specific internal support – even from another department – may be more valuable as your project member faces the reality of doing an unfamiliar task. Coaching is also part of the Project Managers role too – as generalists project managers can have insights into tasks which are unfamiliar to people in more specialized roles.

Another dynamic approach is to perform the task in a step by step manner with a group of people involved – although importantly still with one person clearly in the lead. This collective approach leans on the different skills of project members and helps upskill the team as a whole. This can work even if no-one has specific experience in the task in hand – as often when we look at people’s skill sets and also skills we can ‘borrow’ from other people they know, we can begin to leverage the project team’s potential.

So, take an open minded approach to supporting project team members where skills gaps are identified. Bear in mind the context and situation but aim for a positive solution that helps both your project and the person’s development. In this way we can aim for a positive outcome that helps to mitigate the roadblocks that skills gaps can place in a project’s development. 

Best guesses in project budgets

Providing accurate, well costed plans is an ideal that each project manager strives for. But the realities are that we often have to be much more flexible. There may be uncertainty around how long something will take (nearly always), or the impact on related services. Whatever the reason, managing uncertainty is part of the reason project managers are needed, so it is not something for us to complain about!

The challenge is how to generate a best guess based on realistic parameters, and how to plan to manage the costs and budget during the projects lifetime. In a risk register we may have an escalation trigged at 20% deviation from plan, but this could generate too many escalations. There are other options we can use. A regular budgetary review for example, scheduled with project authorities. This should allow budgets to be re-set using appropriate project controls, and it means there can be a journey from the baseline figures to a final project budget. But it is important not to forget where you started from, and to keep those that initiated the project informed. This should be done in line with a review of the projects justification – continuously examining the business case for doing the project. By doing this we don’t forget to analyse the ROI and understand if the project is still worth doing.

Whatever option you chose to take, the message is that we can only be more relaxed with estimates if there is a commitment from decisions makers to set aside to review what we are doing on a regular basis. Too often projects lead semi-autonomous lives away from the glare of review. The message should be that stronger project controls should lead to greater flexibility in delivery and changing projects to reflect the business’ needs.

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