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.


Read more of this post

Advice for Junior PMs – #12 – Proper Risk Management will make you more like Sun Tzu

Have you ever seen a Project Manager lose their job because of not managing risks?  Usually, a PM will be let go because of multiple schedule delays or cost overruns, but rarely do you hear office gossip about someone being fired because they weren’t managing risks.

However, if you break down how multiple schedule delays or cost overruns happened, it’s usually due to a few small risks that went unmanaged.  Most companies that I have worked with take the view that only the highest impact/probability risks should be listed, and everything else is not worth noting.  Others have the culture of listing risks only that are timely (i.e. could impact the next reporting period), and others still have the culture of listing no risks whatsoever lest it impact the optics that the project is perfect.


It’s because of this that when talking about status reports with Project Managers that I am responsible for (either at a Program Management level or that I am coaching), my first topic of conversation is always about the Risks section. I try to re-iterate to them that incentivizing PMs to only focus on “big” or “visible” risks opens the project to the cognitive bias of risk homeostasis – that is, if the most visible risks are “managed”, we don’t need to do anything else.


In the Art of War, Master Sun’s statement regarding winning the battle by making no mistakes is one of the most important lessons for a Project Manager regarding planning and risk management. “He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.” (The Art of War, Section IV, point 13.)

Mistakes in the context of battle mean that resources are wasted unnecessarily; mistakes in the context of Project Management means that the Project Manager has missed important or key details that impact the project’s success, ultimately wasting resource.

Thus, I counsel Project Managers to assess all tasks for the risks. When developing the project schedule and work breakdown structure, look at all tasks for worst case “what can go wrong” scenarios, identify the mitigations, build that time into the schedule and cost into the budget. “If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune” (VIII, Point 9)

It may sound simple, but it surely is not. It takes time, commitment from your team to working through the exercise, and your attention to focus on all risks in both the short and long term time horizons of your project’s schedule. Knowing – truly knowing – how to respond to risk events, and having your team know how to react implicitly will spare you and your team from the churn, will demonstrate to your sponsor and client that you have planned for eventualities, and can help you keep your job if you need to draft a change request.

“Hence in the wise leader’s plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.” (Section VIII, Point 7)

Advice for Junior PMs – # 9 – Choosing the right project

Early on in my career, I was given the very sound advice of “Part of being a successful Project Manager is choosing the right project.”  Up to that point, I had either been very lucky (approximately 70% of IT projects are failures per a 2008 statistic) or just really really good at what I do (but I’m leaning towards luck with just a hint of skill).

This advice has proven more and more true (and I can see it more and more as projects go on) for me as my career has gone along.  But what makes the right project? 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

Do I need a PMI membership to keep my PMP?

During my undergraduate degree in university, whenever I was asked what I wanted to do following graduation, I would reply “I want to be a project manager.”  While my career has ebbed and flowed, I still maintain that same  line.

One of the hallmarks of being a project manager is achieving your Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI).  Granted, there is debate in the industry as to the value of the certification (Linkedin, TechRepublic, Northwestern University Master of Engineering Management, the full Google search), but the common thread is that it provides recognition of a base level of competency and professionalism.

Personally, I am proud of my certification.  I put the hours into previous projects, I lined up my references, I studied hard for the certification exam, and at the start of each 3 year cycle I achieve my professional development units (PDUs) through extracurricular training.  As a result, I have been a member in good standing of PMI since 2008 and have had my PMP since 2009.

But here’s the sticky bit – I have never truly understood why I need a PMI membership to keep my PMP certification.  I understand the benefits of membership, as the benefits of the PMI membership are spelled out ad naseum by PMI, but it was never explained if I need my PMI membership to keep my PMP.  Given that customer support at PMI would either not answer my e-mails, or not give me a straight reply, I turned to the Project Management community on LinkedIn.

As it turns out, you do not need a PMI membership to keep your PMP certification.

Now I wonder why an organization that receives the majority of its revenues through membership dues would not give me a straight answer…?

In any case, I will be renewing as I find the digital version of the PMBOK and practice standards useful.

Are you a member of PMI?  Why do you find your membership useful?  Either provide comments down below, or join our discussion on Linkedin.