And you thought status reports were just useful for keeping stakeholders informed of project progress!
Although there are many ways of assessing a project manager’s skills including formal examinations, the perceived success of the projects they have managed and post-project 360 degree feedback surveys, a review of their project status reports might provide additional clues that might not have been gleaned through these traditional measures alone.
Here are a few development areas that might be identified:
- If there are multiple spelling or grammatical mistakes in a sample report, this could point to a written communications skills gap, a lack of attention to detail, or both.
- If the executive summary section of the report focuses too much on minutiae, runs on for more than a few paragraphs or doesn’t provide enough ”meat”, this may reflect the inability to tailor communications to the needs of a specific stakeholder community.
- If health indicators are yellow or red but there are no issues or risks documented in the report which support of these ratings, this could reflect either a lack of attention to detail, or a lack of judgment.
- If the issues or risks listed provide no clear understanding of their business impacts, if the response or resolution strategies are high-level or non-existent, or if the issues or risks have obviously been replicated from a previous status report without any attempt made to update them to reflect current status, this may be a sign of ineffective risk or issue management skills or a lack of attention to detail.
While a single report might help you identify some challenges, a review of a few sequential status reports might also help in determining if the project manager is in charge of the project or is being a bystander. For example, if critical milestones appear to be slipping week-after-week and there is no evidence in the reports of actions taken to avoid further schedule variances, this could be a sign of a weak project manager.
Caveat lector - the fossil record alone can’t provide a fool-proof method of fully understanding the physiology and lifecycle of prehistoric animals. However, used in conjunction with other evaluation tools, a “forensic” review of project status reports can help to provide a more holistic understanding of a project manager’s abilities.
An unfortunate analogy that can be made of project managers is that in many respects they are like worrying parents. They invest a significant amount of effort, credibility and emotion into the nurturing of their projects, so anything that is likely to impact the success of their ”offspring” is going to affect them in a very similar fashion.
There is a broad range to this type of behavior - some parents (usually those who have more than one child) are mature enough to monitor things from a distance but to also be prepared to act if required whereas others micro-manage their kids lives to the point of almost smothering them in bubble wrap! The same can be said about project managers – some trust their team members and stakeholders to be professional enough to come to them proactively when concerns are identified, whereas others won’t be comfortable if they are not constantly “touching base” to make sure all is well. This behavior extends beyond risk and issue management to quality – just as some parents have the need to mold and hammer their children to fit the parents’ vision of how they should turn out, some project managers exhibit the irresistible urge to constantly tweak or tune deliverables, frequently alienating their teams in the process.
While such behavior is detrimental to healthy team development and the perceptions created can linger well beyond the lifetime of an individual project, it is also not conducive to a good work-life balance. Project managers who demonstrate the compelling need to stay on top of absolutely everything and to worry past the point of reason can end up neglecting spending quality time with their families or their own professional development. When challenged about their lack of attention to these critical activities they will rarely indicate that they felt they could have taken an alternative course of action.
Should a project manager be vigilant and take ownership for getting actions, issues & risks addressed – absolutely, if not, they will likely satisfy one or more of Neal Whitten’s ten signs of “too soft” project management behavior! However a project manager also must recognize the limits of their ability to positively influence project outcomes – in spite of these efforts, the project may still suffer for reasons outside of their control. This is where that critical but elusive project management competency of judgment is required to help them accept the things they cannot change, draw on courage to change the things they can and have the wisdom to know the difference.
Congratulations – you’ve just been given the opportunity to manage a very innovative project – so unique, in fact, that nothing similar has ever been attempted by your organization!
Once the euphoria settles, you realize the significant challenge facing you – how do you go about planning a project without the benefit of expert or historical knowledge? To make matters worse, if this is a project your company is doing for a paying customer, there are likely to be tangible and/or reputational penalties if you end up significantly missing the mark.
Assuming you have done your research and knowledge of similar projects is not easily available through your professional network, business partners or online sources, some of the following practices may help you out.
- Have your customer articulate what they feel is a minimally acceptable end state, and then have them give you an idea of the relative priority of all other bells and whistles. This can help you focus your team on working through the complexities of “must have” requirements without being overwhelmed by the “nice to haves”.
- Involve your customer in scope decomposition – they’ve likely spent considerably more time in thinking about the scope than you or you team may have and even though they may not be able to materially help you in answering the “how”, they should be able to refine or focus your understanding of the “what”.
- The more novel the project, the wider should be the skills and backgrounds of invitees to planning sessions. You don’t know what you don’t know, so by increasing diversity, you should see a resulting increase in the quality of scope definition & decomposition as well as in identifying good approaches to deliver this scope.
- Apply techniques such as Delphi to be able to refine and distill estimates.
- Conduct risk identification sessions with as broad a group of participants as possible. Not only will this help to unearth risks which you may not have considered, but it will help to overcome biases and may even help to identify scope elements which has been missed earlier.
- Structure the project into multiple phases - the first to deliver a prototype, pilot or model of the desired end state as well as detailed estimates and development plan for delivering complete scope.
- Embrace agile practices and approach the project as a set of iterations or sprints with the focus being on delivering highest priority customer-usable scope first. That way, if you do find yourself facing the likelihood of going over budget or behind schedule, the customer can elect to cut their losses but still have received value from the work completed to date. It is also advisable to focus on tackling higher risk, must-have requirements first – knocking those off will give the team a morale boost, and challenges experienced with completing those can help you more accurately re-forecast budget and timelines.
- Where reasonable, negotiate to make working conditions for your team as supportive of creativity and productivity as possible. You may need to request your customer or sponsor’s influence in getting waivers on your organization’s standard operating procedures if this means that your team will be able to hit the mark more predictably. Employ project warrooms, collaboration sites or any other types of physical or virtual tactics that can reduce distance between team members and increase knowledge sharing.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!