How to Launch a Successful Project

Have you ever been handed an “impossible” project, only to realize that the next step is to convince your team it’s completely doable?

In this video, I share two manager’s responses to the identical task. The project was identical, their team’s response and level of engagement is worlds apart.

I imagine both scenarios will feel scarily familiar. What can you do to encourage more from scene number two in the New Year?

Thanks so much for your support of Let’s Grow Leaders in 2015. I love the feedback I’m receiving on the 2016 planning survey. If you have asked for something specific, and not included your contact information, please send me a note to let me know how I can reach out to you.

Also for anyone near the DC area, I’m excited to be supporting the Project Management Day of Service, where hundreds of project managers will volunteer their time to help non-profits organize and plan their projects. There are lots of ways to get involved, from volunteering to signing up your non-profit to benefit from the free services, or becoming a sponsor. It’s an amazing endeavor. Last year they had over 400 project managers donating their time and helped over 100 organizations. I encourage you to check it out.

I’m not going to be writing between Christmas and New Years, spending time with extended family and headed out on a scuba trip (Sebastian’s first, now that he has aged in at 10.)

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Namaste,

Karin

grow in peace

rocket light bulb

7 Questions You Should Ask When You Launch a New Project

I’m launching a new project that will significantly propel the LGL mission of growing leaders with the confidence and humility to make a deeper impact on the world. It’s a strong team, and I found us organically asking one another questions to frame our mission and set us up for success. There was no checklist, but I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be helpful for others in such scenes if there were?”

And so today, I offer 7 questions to ask before you launch any significant project.

7 Questions You Should Ask Before You Launch a New Project

1. Why is this project vital?

Why are we doing this?  Why now? Who will benefit and what do they most need? How much will it cost and why is it worth the investment?

2. What does success look like?

How will we measure our success? What are the process measures that will let us know we are on track?

3. Who else must we include?

Who do we need to be successful? Who are key stakeholders who should be brought in early?

4. How will we communicate?

We’re actually using some cool collaboration systems, including Hall, Gather Content and Cage.

5. How does this project integrate with other work underway?

In my work at Verizon this was always one we had to consider well. It’s worth going slow to go fast in this phase to ensure there’s no redundancy or worse, competing efforts.

6. What can we learn from others who’ve done similar work?

Again, it’s worth taking the time to benefit from other people’s key learnings. Breakthroughs are almost always improvements of work that has come before. Be sure you know what that is.

7. Who will do what by when?

Too many project teams jump right into the action planning. Asking the first six questions first will help to ensure you plan is effective.

So, Karin, what’s the project? Ahh, that leads to the bonus question, “When do you announce your plans?” Stay tuned.

The Secret To Communicating With Executives

Without executive support your project will fail. You need funding, headcount, and time. Your team’s counting on you to manage up well. You’re looking for the secret sauce to convince your boss. Start by avoiding these 5 mistakes.

5 Big Mistakes When Communicating with Executives

  1. Over Confidence – Executives are suspicious of rose-colored glasses. Water down you exuberant optimism. If it’s going great, speak to “early positive indicators.” or about being “cautiously optimistic.” Throw in a few things you’re worried about for good measure. Execs like to worry. Throw them a bone.
  2. Lack Of Confidence – Don’t send him to bed at night worrying if you’re the right guy for the job. Show up strong and knowledgeable. Listen to his questions carefully and share your expertise. Balance accomplishments with plans to resolve your biggest concerns.
  3. Over Disclosure – Tell the truth elegantly, and then shut up. You know a lot, avoid the temptation to prove it. You don’t want that exec getting involved in minutia. Unless you’re a big fan of more readouts and escalations, share what’s relevant and move on.
  4. Forgetting To Breathe – The tendency to spew will undermine your credibility. I’ve been in more than one exec review where the speaker was instructed to “take a breath.” Pause for questions. Make it a conversation.
  5. Ignoring The Ask – Even if they don’t ask, have an ask. Execs want to contribute, but aren’t sure where to jump in. They’ll feel better, and you’ll get what you need.

The Secret

The secret to executive communication is credibility. Work on building trust and connection in every interaction. Trusted advisors build a track record of solid decisions and successful projects. Layer on appropriate confidence and carefully crafted words, and your project and relationship will prosper.

Information Underload: What Are You Missing?

The higher you grow in the organization, the more you work in sound bites. Process fast to look smart. Draw conclusions where others see only questions. Conclude with conviction. Make decisions and move the process along. Ask your team to “net it out.” You don’t need all that detailed information. Or do you?

The devil still basks in details.

“It’s entirely possible that you can process and file more information than anyone who has come before you. And quite likely that this filing is preventing you from growing and changing and confronting the fear that’s holding you back.”
~Seth Godin, “I Get It

Beware of Information Underload

Resist the urge to look smart. Stop filling in the blanks with lack of understanding. Don’t micromanage. Do get smarter.

Don’t assume

  • you know the type (she’s not “high-potential”)
  • the market won’t react well (it didn’t last time)
  • customers will hate it (they don’t like change)
  • this project won’t work (because a similar endeavor failed)
  • the union will resist (because they always do)
  • senior management won’t go for it (because it seems too risky)

It’s Not What You Know, But How You Know

Asking well encourages truth. Asking well empowers.

Empowerment doesn’t mean working in the dark.

Your team has

  • details
  • opinions
  • concerns
  • weird data they can’t explain
  • conclusions
  • possibilities
  • wacky next steps

They’ve likely been coached to “not go there.” “There” is exactly where you need to go. Make it safe to hear what you must. Build an environment where you hear what would otherwise be left on the editing room floor.

Some Ways

  • Show up everywhere (kindly)
  • Ask questions that don’t feel like tests
  • Smile and laugh as needed
  • Express your genuine thirst
  • Do something with what you hear (without getting anyone in trouble)
  • Recognize the great work you see
  • Invite yourself in advance to working meetings and then listen

Empowerment happens in the daylight Shine bright lights, and be deliberate in your reactions. Question, encourage, invite, excite, grow, develop.

Only then, will you have enough information.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down: and How to Fix It

When execution is broken, so is leadership. Teams that don’t execute are starving. They crave vision and direction. Carrots don’t improve vision.

Execution breaks down when there’s..

  • fuzzy vision
  • lack of buy-in
  • hidden agendas
  • competing priorities
  • confusion
  • chaos
  • apathy
  • broken teamwork
  • ?

Don’t blame, punish, or make excuses. Lead better.

4 Reasons Execution Breaks Down (and what to do about it)

  1. Lack of Commitment
    Excitement doesn’t necessarily mean commitment. Encourage early dissent. Ask, “what’s wrong with this plan?” or “How’s everyone feeling.” Check with folks offline. Ignored objections will visit later in uglier clothes.
  2. Unspoken Agendas
    You’re the boss, so they go along. But, they have their own ideas, stakeholders and personal concerns. Surface competing commitments. Help the team prioritize. Talk one-on-one.
  3. Fuzzy Direction
    You think the plan is clear– it’s not. Ask the team to articulate their specific next steps and timeline. I’m often amazed at the breakdowns. Best to catch them early.
  4. Moving Too Fast
    I’ve got scar tissue on this one.Early in my career my boss pulled me aside.
“Karin, you’ve got good ideas and big energy. Your brain moves quickly. You get remarkably excited. You rally the team and start running. BUT. you get running so far ahead that you forget to look back and see if we’re with you. Slow down, look back, folks are gasping for air on the side of the road and can’t see you. Make sure we’re with you.”

If you’re a runner, learn to wait at the water stops. Check for understanding.

Commitment, agendas, direction, velocity.

Why Can't You See The Big Picture?

I was doing my normal juggling of “leader” and “mom” roles. I was feeling pretty good about the “mom” part as I drove to the stadium that night.

Sure I was on a conference call the whole way there, but I pulled into the parking lot well before halftime. The marching band had not yet entered the field– that’s a win.

There was plenty of time to set up to take the pictures I had promised my son for his senior year. I found the perfect spot, got some great facial expressions, and even some action shots.

I drove home proudly and uploaded them to Photoshop. I adjusted everything just right and excitedly showed them to my son.

“Mom, did you get the guitar?”
“Huh? “Ben, you play mellophone”
“Mom, the band moves into a fantastic formation it looks like a guitar right in time with the music did you get a picture of that?”

I had completely missed the big picture

It happens at work too

My phone rang, it was one of the leaders on my team.

“Karin, you know that project you asked me to look into?”
“He continued” well, all the milestones are on track. IT, HR, Operations everyone has met their deliverables but.”

The project looked good on paper, but we both knew something was wrong.

Results weren’t moving.

The big picture was messy.

“We have to stop thinking about this as a project, we need to step back and figure out what needs to be done.”

He was right.

Why We Miss The Big Picture

Sometimes we get too close, and put our heads down doing tasks.

There is danger in looking at a project as a project.

We miss the big picture because we…

Sometimes we need to stop. Look up. Take in the whole scene.
Stop looking at the project as a “project.”

Why Can’t You See The Big Picture?

I was doing my normal juggling of “leader” and “mom” roles. I was feeling pretty good about the “mom” part as I drove to the stadium that night.

Sure I was on a conference call the whole way there, but I pulled into the parking lot well before halftime. The marching band had not yet entered the field– that’s a win.

There was plenty of time to set up to take the pictures I had promised my son for his senior year. I found the perfect spot, got some great facial expressions, and even some action shots.

I drove home proudly and uploaded them to Photoshop. I adjusted everything just right and excitedly showed them to my son.

“Mom, did you get the guitar?”
“Huh? “Ben, you play mellophone”
“Mom, the band moves into a fantastic formation it looks like a guitar right in time with the music did you get a picture of that?”

I had completely missed the big picture

It happens at work too

My phone rang, it was one of the leaders on my team.

“Karin, you know that project you asked me to look into?”
“He continued” well, all the milestones are on track. IT, HR, Operations everyone has met their deliverables but.”

The project looked good on paper, but we both knew something was wrong.

Results weren’t moving.

The big picture was messy.

“We have to stop thinking about this as a project, we need to step back and figure out what needs to be done.”

He was right.

Why We Miss The Big Picture

Sometimes we get too close, and put our heads down doing tasks.

There is danger in looking at a project as a project.

We miss the big picture because we…

Sometimes we need to stop. Look up. Take in the whole scene.
Stop looking at the project as a “project.”

Get More Done in Less Time: Learning From Crises

When are you most productive? If you are like most people I know the answer is easy, when you really need to be. Most of us have great examples of crises and other urgent situations, where folks pull together and get more done.

And yet, at other times, lots of stuff seems to get in the way. And we look at each other with the common question, “how can I get more done?”

We Use The Time We Have

 

It’s human nature. When we have time,, we use it.

Most projects take at least the time allotted. Most conference calls finish just-in-time. When is the last time you saw a BAU project expedited–because it was possible?

We know this as Parkinson’s law, work expands to fill the time allotted. Nothing is expedited when things are moving along as planned, because it doesn’t need to be.

What Can We Learn from a Crises?

One the other hand, in a time of crises, the time allotted is zero, so everything is expedited. There is something urgent that must be fixed. Suddenly, the normal protocols disappear and work happens fast.

There’s a lot to be learned about execution from a crises. At times of natural disasters, blackouts, and other unthinkable crises, teams pull together and execute in ways they never thought possible. Creative solutions emerge from seemingly nowhere, “impossible” deadlines are exceeded, and competitors collaborate for the greater good, Organizations and teams execute with an efficiency they never thought possible.

Why? What good can we learn from these undesired times?

Here’s a list of what I’ve seen first hand over the years, and observed and followed in other people’s fantastic stories of execution in a time of crises.

How They Get More Done

  • Everyone becomes energized around a common mission
  • Decisions normally made by committee, are made on the fly
  • People work extraordinary hours, and feel enlivened by their contribution
  • IT and other complex projects that normally require substantial planning are expedited and done in Herculean time frames
  • Communication becomes paramount: people talk frequently
  • Decision makers roll-up their sleeves to help, and the experts rise to positions of power
  • Standard protocols soften, and people support one another
  • Companies collaborate for the greater good
  • No one touches Powerpoint until the post-mortem
  • …???

Of course, we can’t live on an adrenaline rush all the time. And, fast decisions can also have downsides. On the other hand

 

Post-Mortem of Success: Questions that Drive Sustained Results

Most great project managers know that it’s important to do a post-mortem after any major undertaking. In my experience, a post-mortem is much more likely to occur when something went terribly wrong. I have heard (and said) in the heat of frustration, “we just need to get through this now, but afterwards we need a very careful post-mortem.”

In this funny and insightful post, Lee Cash, shares the challenges with a traditional post-mortem and how to overcome some of them, The postmortem: what it is and how to survive one.

Postmortem: noun:

  1. An examination and dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death or the changes produced by disease
  2. Discussion of an event after it has occurred
  3. A blame fest where, if you’re not careful, you get attributed with everything that’s wrong in the world

In essence, post-mortems are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again. The practice nearly always takes the format of a face-to-face meeting (if possible) and involves all of the key players who had a role in the “hiccup”, and hence why you’re all now sitting in a room waiting for the fireworks to happen.

The post-mortem seems less urgent after an over-whelming success. Most of us just celebrate, and then merrily race off to fight our next crises, or build our next remedial action plan.

Why Do a Post-Mortem of Success?

I recently had a celebratory conversation with a leader who was experiencing some fantastic results after months of challenges and struggling metrics. This was turnaround at it’s finest. I was delighted with the progress and wanted to recognize him. We did all that and then, I asked, “what is working and why?”
That’s where we got stumped.
He had theories, I had theories the truth is, so many action plans and efforts had been applied to the problem, we were unsure of which were contributing to the solution.
A bit scary was it the entire cocktail?
How do we isolate the variables?
How would we sustain the progress if we didn’t understand what had worked?
How could the lessons be applied to other areas of the business if we didn’t understand them?

How to Approach a Success Post-Mortem

We decided a deliberate approach was in order. Yup, I ended that celebratory meeting by giving the guy more work. Why, because I believe in the long-run it will save everyone time.

He’s spending time…

  • considering and discussing. what were the expected outcomes of the various interventions?
  • observing: what behaviors have actually changed?
  • measuring: doing deeper dives into the analytics to look for patterns of improvement
  • listening: to folks about what feels better now and why?

Taking the time to understand what is working may be even more vital than learning from our failures.