Australia’s new Prime Minister – Julia Gillard

June 24, 2010

It has been a fascinating 24 hours in Australian politics. The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was dumped and we now have our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The unfolding drama was a mixture of ruthless efficiency in the coup to oust the previous Prime Minister, immediately followed by the start of a process of inclusion and healing.

Managers faced with difficult decisions can learn a lot from today’s events. My thoughts on several key issues are:

  1. Ethical dilemmas are always difficult and need decisions. As Henry Kissinger said: “Competing pressures tempt one to believe that an issue deferred is a problem avoided, more often it is a crisis invented”. There is no right answer to a dilemma, every option has a downside. Leaders choose a way forward and live with the consequences.
    [See: Ethics and Leadership]
  2. When you do decide on a course of action, don’t hide the issues that created the dilemma in the first place, explain your reasoning and acknowledge both the greater good and the consequential harm. When a Deputy takes over from her leader there are inevitable questions of loyalty and trust, honest reasoning lets observers understand the reasons for the decision.
  3. Conversations and transformational negotiations lead to better outcomes than win-lose transactional negotiations but often you need to make the first concession to start down this path [see: Win-Win Negotiations]. The Government and the mining industry were locked in a head to head battle over a new tax. In the space of 5 hours the new Prime Minister had unilaterally cancelled government advertising over the issue and offered open negotiations. The mining industry had reciprocated and suspended their advertising campaign. The negotiations may or may not reach a consensus (no one like having their taxes increased) but both sides are likely to end up with a better outcome if the transformational negotiations work.
    [See: Negotiating and Mediating]
  4. In a disagreement over principles, you only need to achieve your objective; you don’t need to destroy the other party. The former Prime Minister has been offered a position of his choosing in the new government. If accepted, this means his talents and knowledge are still available to the team. Reluctant allies are better than committed opponents.

It’s certainly been an interesting day watching a really effective communicator in action in action; I feel as though I have learned a lot.

Confronting Soft Skills

June 17, 2010

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people holding leadership roles in the project management community who denigrate ‘soft’ skills. The latest attack on ‘soft’ skills is in a letter to the editor in the May edition of Project Magazine published by the APM, UK.

The Honorary Secretary of the APM Contracts and Procurement SIG, Gerry Orman states ‘soft skills are merely a form of manipulation’; and suggests including them in the knowledge framework for the project management profession will result in the dumbing down of our emerging profession. He also asserts the role of the project manager is to fulfil a contract, not deliver the project so apparently people leading the delivery of internal projects within organisations are not project managers!

Apart from the difficulty of defining projects in terms of one sourcing methodology, writing contracts, Orman seems to conveniently forget the thousands of contracts that end up in the courts each year because of the breakdown in relationships within the contract. Stakeholder management is a key skill for project managers, including identifying, prioritising the project’s stakeholders, and then developing effective communication within relationships that work (for more on this see WP1007 The Stakeholder Cycle). The success of the construction phase of Terminal 5 at Heathrow was largely due to BAA’s focus on the ‘soft’ skills needed to develop and sustain the integrated delivery teams that created the success. This was a revolution in procurement and supply chain management and led to this project being celebrated as the most successful construction project in the UK (for more on this see my presentation to the CIPS Australasia Strategic Procurement Forum in Auckland).

The same argument applies to most project management artefacts. The most perfectly developed schedule is totally useless if the information it contains is not communicated to the people who need to work to the plan; communication is a ‘soft’ skill. But communication on its own is not enough! The people receiving the communication need to understand the message and agree to use the schedule in the coordination of their work. This is unlikely to happen if the people have not been involved in the schedule development which requires more stakeholder engagement and communication, consensus building and a range of other ‘soft’ skills (see: Communication in organisations: making the schedule effective).

Putting it another way, developing an effective schedule that is useful because it is actually used to manage time on the project demands the project manager and/or project scheduler engage effectively with the people who will be responsible for implementing the schedule. This requires interpersonal, contextual and behavioural competencies.

Orman also states professional skills should be unique to the professions, examinable in a written exam and uses the medical profession as an example. Two members of our family recently completed a multi year journey to become qualified anaesthetists. Over the years there were many written examinations but there were also searching interviews and clinical assessments along the way and years of ‘apprenticeship’ under the direction of more senior professionals to ensure they were competent as well as knowledgeable. If medical professionals need more than book learning and written examinations why should project managers be any different?

Project success is achieved by persuading people in the project team to enthusiastically and collaboratively work together to achieve the contracted output. Developing a motivated team capable of achieving this requires a range of ‘soft’ skills including leadership, motivation, communication and conflict management to name a few. Organisations cannot do work; it is the people within the organisation that do the work and management is about directing and leading people!

Answering the question, what is more important, the ‘hard’ skills of scope management, scheduling and cost planning or the ‘soft’ skills of motivation, communication and leadership, is difficult. My feeling is the synergy of ‘hard’ skills powered by ‘soft’ skills will create a far more powerful engine for success than the sum of the two parts in isolation. Successful project managers need both capabilities either within their person or within their leadership team.

If we ignore stakeholders and the ‘soft’ side of our project management skill set we severely reduce our ability to meet our client’s requirements for on time on budget and on scope delivery. ‘Soft’ is not a synonym for easy!

Advising Upwards

June 9, 2010

Your project will only be considered successful if its key stakeholders perceive the project’s outcome as a success. These perceptions of success or failure are heavily influenced by the effectiveness of the project’s communications, and relationships, with its stakeholder community, particularly senior managers. Communicating effectively is both a science and an art framed within a relationship.

The starting point if you wish to be taken seriously is to develop a reputation for credibility. Senior management need to recognise that if you say something, it is backed up by facts, and if you commit to something, it is delivered. Credibility is earned by performance, but there is no harm in quietly making sure your performance is noticed in the right places. Your reputation is a general underpinning to all internal organisational relationships. Developing a specific relationship needs a specific, culturally appropriate focus before you can expect to communicate effectively.

Also, the last few years have seen significant changes in people’s understanding of acceptable behaviours and have forced a re-evaluation of the way Project and Program managers need to communicate to influence their stakeholders; particularly when ‘advising upwards’ and dealing with difficult people. The first key to building any effective relationship is to avoid stereotyping. Upwardly mobile managers with a focus on being promoted, frequently have a different life focus to project managers. These differences are not uncommon in successful senior executives and need to be respected as a component in the relationship, not denigrated.

The second key is to recognise that in every relationship there is a power dimension. How a senior manager uses his or her power is to an extent a generational issue. As long as they understand their purpose, many younger managers would see nothing wrong in a more junior manager setting reasonable boundaries and procedures to the relationship and communication. Older managers used to operating in a command and control environment are likely to react negatively to a ‘junior’ pushing rules upwards.

The solution is mutuality. You need to understand what you need from the relationship (support, resources, backing) and also what the senior manager needs from the relationship. Then, work within the relationship to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes that meet both sets of requirements. It is by linking your needs to the achievement of the senior manager’s requirements; you can start to achieve real communication.

As already mentioned, crafting advice to senior management to achieve effective outcomes from the communication is as much an art as a science. Communicating for effect requires a clear understanding of the objective of the communication and the skills to create messages that are focused:

  • On the right people
  • At the right time and carry
  • The right information in the right format.

Mutuality and credibility are the two keys to advising upwards, but in the end, all relationships depend on the situation. If you are seen as a serious contributor to the organization’s success and can link your needs to the needs of senior management, there’s a high probability of achieving your desired outcome and benefiting the organization at the same time.

My next book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders, will be published by Gower in 2011. For more on the book see:

In the meantime, our popular workshop, The science and art of communicating effectively will be run in Sydney and Melbourne over the next few weeks. For more information see:

PMO Survival

June 3, 2010

Research by Dr. Brian Hobbs, University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada published in a White Paper prepared for the Project Management Institute (PMI) highlights the precarious existence of the majority of Project Management Offices (PMOs). Approximately half of the PMO’s in existence are seeing their relevance or very existence questioned.

Whilst PMOs have been popular since the middle to late 1990’s and new PMOs are being created at a relatively high rate; PMOs are also being shut down or radically reconfigured at a similar rate. As shown in the figure below most PMOs in existence today are rather recent creations. The sample suggests more than half the PMOs in existence today (54%) were created in the last two years and only 17% have been in existence for more than five years.

This data suggests a PMO often has only a short time to demonstrate its ability to fit into the organisations culture and create value before it is restructured or closed down. We have looked at some of the issues and challenges associated with PMOs in a Mosaic White Paper ‘PMOs’.

Based on years of observation, the key to achieving an effective start up for a PMO has more to do with the PMO’s management being able to effectively manage their key stakeholders, particularly in the executive suites than any methodology or reporting processes the PMO may import or develop. For more on this see the numerous papers we have published [paper listing]. The key message is technical competence is never going to be enough to justify the existence of a PMO.