Are You The Previn Of Your Project?

Andre George Previn was a German/American pianist, composer, and conductor whose career had three major genres; Hollywood films, jazz, and classical music. He achieved success in each, with jazz and classical being a major part of his life. Andre also scored over 40 Hollywood films. Yeah, pretty successful guy.

My son, who is a musician and participates in musicals and other theatre productions, educated me on him. Andre’s music is part of an upcoming performance my son is going to. As I was getting educated, we watched some YouTube videos about Andre. I was intrigued. The more I watched and listened, the more I thought how lessons shared by a music conductor can be applied to project management. Here are four lessons learned from Previn.

Orchestra conductors don’t produce any sound. You’re right, they don’t! Instead, they lead from the front. I think of a quote by Lee Lambert; project managers don’t do work. They get work done through others. Like conductors, project managers are leaders and should be out front directing, not producing. The project leader sets the pace and keeps it going, much like a conductor does with their baton. Project managers are dependent entirely on the work and actions of others for success. Interdependence is the key, not being independent.

Mistakes happen, but the music goes on. Let’s be honest, we all make mistakes. They happen. Have you ever heard a kid’s band concert? Wrong notes abound! Despite the wrong notes and mistakes, the song keeps moving and doesn’t stop. Mistakes also happen on our projects. When they do, we need to find a way to keep it moving. Sometimes the team will need to reprioritize their work to focus on issue resolution, but in the name of progress keep the project moving along!

Lead with intent. “We want to convey a feeling, sometimes multiple feelings, from our music.” This comment was said as it showed the conductor wildly flapping his arms during a loud and fast section of music, then suddenly brings the volume way down. Leading with intent translates the goals into actions that drive to a result. Whether it’s through music or to achieve organizational value, leaders keep the end goal in mind and lead with that intent throughout.

Understand their stakeholders and their needs. Previn scored a lot of films in his career. To be successful in that area, he asked questions, listened to what was said and unsaid, and built trusting relationships. Understanding stakeholder needs was critical. The same can be said for projects. Get to know your key stakeholders and understand how most effectively to work and communicate with them. If you don’t, it could spell trouble down the road!

Next time you listen to an orchestra or band play, think of the conductor as a project manager. There they are, leading from the front with intent, keeping things moving even if there are mistakes while acknowledging stakeholder needs. Maybe project managers and conductors have more in common than we thought!

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Being Thankful, Project Management Style!

Tis the season to be Thankful! We all have things we’re thankful for and everyone’s list is different. Here is my annual list of what I’m thankful for in this dynamic career we call Project Management!

Having a Thanksgiving Dinner Release Plan. Our family is hosting a lot of people on Thanksgiving! Lots of people means lots of food, and lots of food prep. Being a project manager, I’ve been helping my wife (sponsor) with planning. We have a timeline established, but will remain flexible if the turkey takes a little longer to cook! And I’ve been assigned the task of cutting up onions.

Learning From Those I Mentor. I have been doing more mentoring this year for three educational institutions. About half of those I mentor have jobs and the other half are full-time students. I enjoy asking questions, listening, and offering advice. What’s also been a huge benefit is learning from those I mentor. Their points of view are unique and they share what they learn in classes. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do this! Mentoring also leads into…

Continuous Learning. One of the areas I’m most thankful for is continuous learning. Every project, team member, and stakeholder gives an opportunity to learn something new. These nuggets of knowledge will help me grow and continually improve my skills. I’m thankful for that!

A Solid Support Network. One thing about the project management community; if you have something happen and need advice, help is just a call/email/text/shout away. I’m not talking about putting a random question on LinkedIn and getting random responses. I’m talking about trusted advisors who take the time to listen, ask questions, and offer sound advice. I’ve expanded that network this year and very thankful I did!

Variety. I have a theory; 80% of the skills I have are applicable to any industry. The other 20% are industry-specific and need to be learned. Therefore, I’m not limited to one specific industry and have the option to consult at a variety of companies doing a variety of projects. IT, biotech, healthcare, construction, legal, all areas I’ve worked in. I like changing scenery and I’m thankful project management offers that variety.

To all those who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving! I’m thankful for the project management career, and hope you are too. Best wishes!

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Don’t Keep Jump Starting What’s Not Working

“O Dad (what my oldest son calls me), the car’s dead again. Can you help me jump start it?”

Again! I thought to myself. I must have jump started that car five times in the last two weeks. If we don’t start the car at least every 24 hours, it won’t go. Since it wasn’t driven for a couple days, it rolled over twice and the starter clicked.

“Yeah, grab the starter and I’ll pop the hood. Good news is you’ll know how to jump a car if one of your friends needs it in the future!”

Up went the hood. We hooked up the charger, started the car, and away my son drove. The next day, we repeated the same exercise. This time, instead of my son driving to a friend’s house, we drove to the battery store and got it replaced! No issues since new battery has been installed.

Why did we keep restarting what wasn’t working? Why didn’t I fix the root problem sooner? That would’ve saved me time and frustration!

Now, put this in the context of the projects you are or have managed, and the processes in place to support them. Has a project stalled and needed to be jump-started, maybe multiple times? Maybe there’s a process step that constantly creates an issue or delay, but no one has looked at the root cause. Are we jump starting projects or processes that don’t work or add value?

I once started with a client where they asked I take over a project after the previous PM quit. The project was labeled “mission critical” and had to complete, and soon. I read the first charter. Then read the second charter after a “reboot.” Then the third charter after a “restart.” Now, I was being asked to create a yet another new charter. What do you call attempt number four? Insanity may be a good word!

But, instead of creating a new charter, I reviewed additional documentation and asked a simple, but difficult, question. Is this project still worth doing if it’s stopped three times already? That question brought anger and chaos! After multiple meetings, including with members of the executive team who had no idea this project even existed, it was officially terminated. No more rebooting or restarting. Instead, other projects were re-prioritized and processes put in place to showcase all projects in progress on a bi-weekly basis.

I, like many project professionals, have been tasked with picking up a project that has either stalled completely or in jeopardy of doing so. When that happens, dig into the root cause of why it happened in the first place. As more is learned, you’ll either restart the project as requested, or ask a very difficult question; is this project really worth doing? Sure, you may be yelled at (I know it’s happened to me more than once), but the more you ask to a broader audience, you may find the project isn’t worth jump starting. If it does get moving, hopefully this time will be viewed more closely to ensure it doesn’t sputter out again.

The same can be said about project processes. Sometimes processes are put in place with the best of intentions. But over time, they turn into time-sucking bureaucratic pains that should be allowed to die. If they’re not working, take them out!

If you ever find yourself saying “Well, it didn’t work the first time!”, ask if there needs to be a second. Don’t jumpstart what’s not working, or will continue to work. Ask questions, even if they’re uncomfortable. You could save yourself, your team, and possibly your company, a lot of wasted time and headaches!

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Three Key Qualities of a Great Leader

“You can be a leader, or an excuse maker. You cannot be both. Good leaders talk about where to go. Great leaders help you get there and don’t make excuses along the way.”

Did I hear that right? Did he just start talking about leadership during a church sermon? This guy’s a pastor, not a business coach! I must’ve heard him wrong.

My wandering mind snapped back to the moment and I listened intently. I snatched a pen from my wife and a random piece of paper with kid-drawn stick figures on it. I didn’t care. I needed to jot down what may be important. Little did I know I’d fill that piece of paper front and back!

We constantly hear and read about what makes a person a leader from a variety of articles and podcasts. You need to do this. Or that. Try this. You’re made, not born. Blah blah blah. I think there’s about 90% overlap from one expert to the next.

But what caught my attention during this church service was this person, a pastor, wasn’t a business coach. He may have known human behavior and theological history, but did he know leadership? What can I learn?

Learn I did. In the stories and personal reflection, I was able to glean three key qualities of a great leader.

1. Passion to Inspire. A large global company I worked for had their annual all-employee meeting. The CEO started it off on a positive note, though with less enthusiasm than I usually see from someone at that level. During the meeting, all the heads of the business units got their 5 minutes to give updates. Thus far, every person who took the stage was wearing a finely tailored dark colored suit and stood behind a podium reading from cue cards.

Then, the SVP from a newly acquired company took the stage to give his business update. He was wearing a brightly colored shirt without a suit jacket or tie. No need for a podium or cue cards. He walked the stage. Used hand gestures. Spoke with passion. Talked about the value of his team, the ideas they brought to the business, and the work they accomplished. You could tell this person was a leader! No one that came after him could top his enthusiasm.

Great leaders have a passion that inspires their teams. They’re able to pull the best from the team members to accomplish great things. They don’t push tasks to people, but instead motivates them to achieve a larger goal. These centered leaders are secure, engaged, and guided by internal, unwavering values. You’ll know them when you meet them!

2. Willingness to Empower. Imagine you’re leading a “Mission Critical” project with enterprise-impacting results. You’ve had a few issues come up and someone sounded the alarm to executive leadership. Then, during a team meeting, the COO walks in the room. Everyone went silent! The COO said he was there for one simple reason; his job was to empower us to do ours. He would eliminate blockers, give support, and make phone calls day or night to help us along. On his way out, he said “I trust you. You got this under control.”

You can have control or you can have growth. You can’t have both. Great leaders know that and are not “Command and Control” types. Instead, they empower their teams to make decisions and get the work done. They articulate the goal and present a clear picture of what DONE looks like, then empower their teams to turn that into reality.

Here’s where I feel great leaders separate themselves from the lesser ones; Delegation of Authority. When you’re delegated tasks, someone tells you to do something and maybe even tells you how to do it. But a great leader delegates authority. When they do that, they’re essentially saying “I trust you. You decide how to get it done.” You then have authority to drive progress forward and get what you need.

3. Heart to Care. “Great leaders have a heart to care. This isn’t just about making another person feel good. It’s about noticing them, and how their contributions matter. Appreciate someone more than you think you should, then double it.” I couldn’t write the words down fast enough!

Thinking about this more, some leaders want people to feel “good.” But good is subjective and can also be transactional. A great leader goes beyond by truly recognizing someone’s contributions and appreciating the skills they bring to the team. When someone say’s “You’re doing a great job”, it’s a blanket statement. If they say “You do an awesome job communicating upcoming tasks to the team so they know what’s coming”, that’s more specific and meaningful. When giving this feedback, be genuine and appreciative. The person will show you care and make them feel important!

Caring isn’t all duckies and bunnies, though. There will be times you have to have a tough conversation with a team member. I’m not a fan of the “shit sandwich” approach where I say something good on top, then tough feedback in the middle, then something good on the bottom. People see through that. Instead, tell them up front you’re giving them this feedback because they’re an awesome employee and you believe this will help them grow. Be respectful and make it conversational.

So, what makes a great leader? They inspire, empower, and care about their teams. Good leaders do all these things, but the great ones go above and beyond! What else would you add?

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