Advice for Junior PMs #13: Let your team do work…

Meetings, bloody meetings. How many times have you looked at your calendar, as a PM, to only be exasperated that you have 16 meetings in one day, and your main milestones are close to being late? How about 8 and you are dealing with major issues? And how many of these meetings have your primary team members as mandatory attendees?

Running the delivery/build phase of a project like this is a trap and a self perpetuating cycle. It’s a sure sign that your project is either moving too fast, has not given enough consideration for planning (either requirements elicitation, technical design, or user story grooming), or is generally understaffed.

“But I have milestones to achieve and deliverables to complete!” I hear you say.  I understand; we all have top down pressure to complete projects faster with less resources.


Scheduling multiple meetings every day is not a good way to help you move faster… It’s a very good way to slow work down, though.  I see Junior PMs do this all the time, and then get frustrated that no work is getting done.

So how do you break this vicious cycle?

  1. Understand your team’s capacity – a lot of system delivery projects have one team doing most of the work.  Really understand how much work they can take on at any given time before committing to getting work complete.
  2. Finish one thing at a time – scheduling multiple deliverables to complete at the same time is a sure fire way to lose focus on everything and slow work down. Get one thing done before moving on to the next.
  3. Break your project down into smaller chunks – by doing so, you can reinforce items 1 and 2 above.
  4. Set expectations accordingly – the number 1 job of a project manager is expectations management.  Your customers, sponsor, and team should all be on the same page far as priorities and delivery pace are concerned. If you can’t meet the pace, get more people and delegate task management accordingly.
  5. Stop scheduling so many meetings – you should have less meetings.  Figure out how to give your team their working time back, and they will get more work done.

When in doubt, stop work, circle the wagons, and figure out your design/plan/goal for the next package of work.  It will save your sanity and help your delivery pace in the long run.


Having a Project done to you (aka Empathy for your sponsor)

What happens when a Project Manager gets to sponsor a project?  Should they try to wrest control, micromanage, and get involved in the planning sessions?  Or should they try to sit back and trust the person leading their project?

Oddly enough, many project Sponsors that I have worked with have previously managed projects themselves before moving up in the organization, and this is a conundrum that they have to deal with each time they start working with a new Project Manager.

It’s pretty rare that, as Project Managers, we are the clients or sponsors of project.  Sometimes there are interdependencies – especially if working on part of a larger Program – but rarely are we the principal client.  To truly become a Senior Project Manager, I would propose that you sponsor a project using your own money with a big impact on your life.

Recently, my wife and I hired a General Contractor to complete some renovations to our house.  Because we had been talking about these renovations for a while, she and I had sat down and listed out exactly what we wanted done – from the layout of our kitchen to paint colors to where we wanted a wall moved.  We had what we thought were a comprehensive list of requirements.

We interviewed 3 General Contractors, and hired the one that brought his team of trades out to site to review and provide input to the estimate.  One line item on his quote was “Project Management – 20% overhead”, which made me feel comfortable that he would be involved in managing schedule, scope, and budget.

Except he wasn’t.  As the project commenced, we learned ours was one of the first residential jobs that he had completed after years of managing commercial jobs.

There were problems with his project management, and there were problems with his assumptions about some requirements that we did not state in our scope.  He worked hard trying to keep things moving, and even chipped in to help the trades, but clearly had not worked on a project like this before

Every schedule that was presented was wrong one day after it was presented; eventually he gave up giving us a schedule and the trades would show up when convenient for them.  When we asked him about the assumptions he was making, he said he wasn’t making any assumptions.  When we asked him about the risks, he said the only risk was weather.  After a few weeks on the job, he came back asking for more money as his original estimate was too low.  We also had his trades asking us directly to get paid, as he hadn’t paid them.

A bathroom in our basement that we hadn’t really given much thought to caused further problems.  We came home one afternoon to find that he had instructed his trades to install a t-bar ceiling (think office ceiling tiles) in our main bathroom because it would be faster to install and be easier for accessing plumbing in case of maintenance required.  We weren’t consulted on this decision and had to stop him as he was buying materials.  He was visibly frustrated that we didn’t agree with his tactic or guidance from his years of working on commercial properties.  He didn’t get that we wanted a bathroom to match the other ones in our house, not a functional public washroom.

No matter how much we challenged, pushed, or complained, we could not influence how this General Contractor was managing our project.  At points, I would try to give him basic tools, such as a calendar, to help illustrate when certain pieces of work would be done; but this was to no avail.  As quality fell and delivery slipped well passed the planned completion date, we were being backed into a corner to approve a change request else our project would not get done.  We were having a project done to us.

After this experience, I had so much more empathy for all of my past Project Sponsors.  How many times has a project sponsor been able to foresee danger, doom, peril, or missteps given their depth of experience that I did not?  I can think of a few projects from very early in my career where I was doing a project to my Sponsors.  I now understand their level of frustration for the times that I went back for more money and time (even if it was due to known risk events).

Your responsibility, as a Project Manager, is to understand the expectations of your Sponsor and present to them a single plan to deliver your project.  You must ensure that your assumptions are communicated (which is a two-way process), and be sure that the risks are well understood for how they can impact the project.  You are doing this project FOR your Sponsor, not TO your Sponsor.

Have you ever had an experience that has given you empathy for your Project Sponsor/Client?

The Essentialist Project Manager

When I first picked up “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown, I was reading it to help me work on managing my time.  I had become over-committed to many things – full time job, sessional instructor at the Haskayne School of Business, volunteer work, mentoring, mentee-ing – all over and above family life.  I wasn’t spending much time with my wife, I hadn’t seen my friends in weeks, I wasn’t spending any time on my fitness, and I was constantly running from one meeting to the next while trying to keep 4 projects on track.  Something had to give before I was totally burned out.


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What type of Project Manager do you want to be?

Have you ever worried that you are haphazardly grasping at a path?  Becoming the type of Project Manager that is sought after as a trusted adviser doesn’t just happen.  You have to be deliberate in defining the type of Project Manager that you want to be.

Read more of this post

Advice for Junior PMs – #8 – Status meetings are boring

I know this might be a bit of a controversial topic, but your status meetings are boring.  As someone who runs these meetings, I know it.  I can see it in my team’s eyes.  They hate it; they are coming up with responses that could be covered off in an e-mail to answer the same questions that I have each week; and find that it kills their productivity. Read more of this post

Good Frustrations vs. Bad Frustrations

I’ll share with you a #secret; I’ve wanted to quit my job no less than 12 times in the past 6 months.  I’ve wanted to quit almost every job that I have had.  Sometimes, I actually went through with it.  Other times, I let my contract expire.  Once, I was even fired.

Why did I want to quit?  The answers have ranged from salary (rather, a manager that wasn’t willing to negotiate) to a toxic work environment (getting yelled down in a meeting on my second day on the job) to thinking that there is no way that I can succeed in the long term.  At least, those are the reasons that I would tell a hiring manager.

Really, though, I quit (or have wanted to quit) because I was frustrated.   Read more of this post

Quotes for the Self Actualized Project Manager

One of my favorite frameworks for looking at how one is doing in life is through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  I’m not certain if it is the oversimplification of how we approach life, or the fact that I can broadly apply it to many of life’s circumstances, but I do think that it is the most succinct framework out there.

Thinking about the top of the triangle, I often ponder what true self actualization would feel like.   I think that being truly self actualized is the meaning of life.  I know many of my friends and colleagues have found their niche (pronounced “nee-sh”, not “nit-ch”) and say that they are self-actualizing in their career.  Personally, I think that most people stumble at the Self Actualization level due to the need to be displaying and constantly seeking their full potential.  So, that being said, I would offer this advice for those Project Managers who desire mastery of their art. Read more of this post

A better feedback model

This is just a quick plug for a tool that I have found to be super effective.   Special thanks to Manager Tools ( for the podcast and indirect coaching.  I highly recommend that you listen to their “Manager Tools Basics” series (even though it can be kind of rambly at points).

Typically, when giving feedback to someone, you give them the shit sandwich – “this was good, that was bad, the other thing was good; overall, keep up the good work but don’t forget about the thing that was bad.”  This model is a bad model, and should be very ashamed of itself.  It’s a bad model because it lets both good and bad behavior sit unattended until feedback review time.

The better way is to be proactive; however being proactive when using the above model can be hard to implement.  How do you walk up to someone and tell them that something that they did was good and/or bad without it happening in a formal review setting? Read more of this post

What if you are your project’s biggest risk?

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” – Alexander Pope

While I was studying to become a project manager, I believed what the PMBOK and my professors had to say as the gospel truth: a project is a project is a project.  It didn’t matter that I had no experience building a bridge, planning a wedding, or configuring a database server… I was going to be a professional project manager, and that meant that I could manage anything (so long as I followed the 5 phases of the PMBOK and did everything that the 11 knowledge areas told me to do)!

For a while, that was the case.  I made sure that all of my projects had strong technical people that were good communicators so as to provide good estimates, identify risks early and often, and manage the details of the deliverables.  I was able to focus on managing at the executive level, facilitating problem resolution, and provide project administration support.

But then it happened – I was assigned a project where I had a little bit of technical knowledge, but not much, and was paired with some intermediate resources.   Read more of this post

Communicating for results – consider your audience

Once upon a time:

  • I had a manager who attested that she was a good communicator – it was just that everyone else was a bad listener.  And then I tendered my resignation.
  • I had a colleague that claimed that she wanted to ensure everyone was having a good time – and then proceeded to order food for all of us based on what she thought we would like.
  • I worked with an organization that were making major changes to how they provisioned service based on recommendations from a book that the CIO loved.  They saw multiple “shadow IT” projects, groups, and employees pop up shortly thereafter.

It always amazes me that people claim to be good communicators but do not understand what they are trying to achieve.  I’ve asked some folks what they were trying to achieve when planning strategic communications, and the answer that I received most often was “to tell people what I think they need to know”.   It is staggering how little consideration is given to the audience. Read more of this post