Sometimes acquaintances or colleagues ask me about the ‘secret’ of (successful) project management or business development. I always say there is no secret: one must combine experience with science – and with very hard work (I will talk about people working 100+ hours per week later) – and that is it. Smart people then go on and say: yes, but how do you combine experience and science specifically?
For the reader who does not know me, I worked on freelance or PSC contracts since 2009 (interrupted by a long-term contract as internal project/contract management consultant with a large government administration from March 2019 till March this year – coinciding with the terrible COVID-years) – and, yes, I consider myself to be successful: my one-man company does fine and – looking back at bid consultancy specifically – my success rate was, roughly 4 into 5. That is plain luck – of course! But I like to think that luck comes more easily to people who are well prepared. In short, perhaps I have some useful personal experience to share – which is what I want to do here.
The specific combination of management experience with science – personified in a real-life person (me) – must be referred to as personal best management practices – so that is what I want to write about here. I will do so in a free-flowing style (I may turn it into a more academic article – hopefully with the help of a good friend with whom I published during my academic years back in the 1990s) with hyperlinks that reference to articles, news snippets or other blogs about the same topics. I hope you enjoy it.
Post-COVID or status quo ante?
As for the title of this post – managing in post-COVID times – I found it more apt than ‘personal best management practices’ or some other general title because a lot of what I write is about that: COVID threw managers in a brave new world where they suddenly had to manage through emails and online meetings. They could no longer convey what they wanted through leadership presence – I am referring to things like body language and, yes, what I refer to as gravitas in a meeting: personal physical presence.
My own personal experience of integrating a team in this virtuality has not been good – and I am currently doing a ‘lessons learnt’ on that, so that explains the title of my post here. I can be brief and summarize the main lesson learnt for me as follows: an incoming manager (especially when you are on a flexible short-term contract) should take much more time to get to know his team. Having a drink or doing something fun with the team during or after your first week is often difficult or not possible at all, and you may have to ‘pay’ for that: distrust in (new) colleagues is much higher than it used to be. Lest I be misunderstood, I immediately add such distrust is totally unintentional: a new face on a screen is just not the same as a man or a woman in a meeting room, with whom you can then get acquainted in a more informal setting. That is all I am saying here: nothing more, nothing less. To throw in a statistic for thought already: I talked to a couple of business friends, and they think a presence of 3 days in 5 onsite (in the office or – if multiple sites are involved – rotating between company premises) should be the new norm for a healthy work-home balance.
If that is not possible – and you have to step in as a remote or online manager – then my advice is: step in softly and think of the ‘quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine’ principle. You only get one chance to make a first good impression, and first impressions and perceptions are hard to change. Starting off on the wrong footing is a huge risk: it is very difficult to correct later. Beware of path dependency: it starts with your first team interactions.
Back to the discussion on the new brave post-COVID world. It is there now. We are in it since end of last year, roughly, when employees were authorized to return back to their office in Belgium. The COVID pass became, de facto, irrelevant, just like the face mask obligation: it disappeared silently in daily life (an act of civil resistance?), and was formally abolished (in Belgium) on 23 May. On that (Belgium and COVID), I am proud to be a Belgian. I am not with the critics here: this sanitary crisis was extremely well managed by our government (I immediately add: the resulting social and economic crisis much less so). [Brief note on the (rather insane, I think) discussion on so-called ‘mandatory’ COVID-vaccination: it is not mandatory. Citizens are invited to have themselves vaccinated (yes, on taxpayer money), and can then do as they want: go or not go). Also, on the so-called government-led intrusion into privacy using medical records and other ‘Big Brother’ conspiracy theories: I can see everything what my government has as medical data on me by logging into the database for that (it is very user-friendly and fully GDPR-compliant), and I am fine with what they have on me: if not, I can remove what I want. Also, yesterday I went to present myself for a free booster shot, and I was met by an extremely friendly and knowledgeable government-paid doctor who checked my health statistics and file in the same database, and then kindly inquired about my lifestyle, checked my health, and then explained to me that I had better wait for the vaccines that will be available in September (which will also be for free) because these new vaccines will protect better against the new variants. Frankly, I never felt better about being a Belgian citizen and paying (admittedly rather hefty) taxes and social contributions into one of the best public health systems in the world. Isn’t it plain amazing how fast private and public research institutes developed these highly effective vaccines, and how governments built the vaccination ‘machinery’ around it, thereby avoiding the historic casualty rates of, for example, during the deadly global influenza pandemic after the first world war and other pandemics when such response was not technologically and organizationally possible?]
Back to the matter at hand: I think Elon Musk (yes – a role model for me as manager – more about that later) is right in getting employees back to the office. I think it is the only (best) way to boost office productivity again, even if the science here is not very clear. However, I am realistic and this will not be possible (not in Europe, at least). Employees feel entitled to homework now, and rightly so: they were obliged to work at home – all of the time – just two years ago, and so now managers cannot just order them back in. A new balance will have to be found, where managers can work ‘live’ with their team(s) perhaps two or three days a week (as mentioned above, I think 60% ‘real’ presence is a good compromise), and employees take responsibility to then do what they are supposed to do at home: be available, be proactive, understand that the real work is done inbetween meetings (meetings are just vehicles for decision-making and tasking), and complete their tasks on time, on quality and on budget as part of a larger whole (the team and the organization). On the latter: I am a firm believer in ‘horizontal organization’ but project teams must have hierarchy and be driven by clear tasks, roles and delivery responsibilities: that is how things move forward, and the project manager’s role is to make sure that happens and – if not – find additional resources or alternatives to get the job done.
As an economist, organizational thinker and management practitioner, I consider that to be a unique management transition – quite unlike anything we have seen over the past 50 years. For me, what happens now in the business world is more revolutionary than the outsourcing movement over the past 30 or 40 years (with the concept of horizontal organizations that came with it); the privatization of the development business; or the move from Web 1.0 (academics and other specialized contents providers putting their contents online in the 1990s) to Web 2.0 (huge influx of users and user-generated contents, with dynamic interactions and the introduction of peer-to-peer networking) and – now – Web 3.0: the Internet of Things and – importantly – the Internet of Value).
On the latter (the advent of Web 3.0), yes – I am totally fascinated by it: it comes with a number of innovations (new encryption technologies transforming PKI architectures, which enables new forms of peer-to-peer networking between organizations, and so many other wonderful things). They all combine into a new powerful whole – just like what unlocked the industrial revolution: separate industries suddenly interlocking and reinforcing and accelerating the pace of change. Older people (like me) were all impressed by how Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 transformed our world – who would have imaged 30 or 35 years ago (my university time) how we use mobile phones now? – but now I look back at that and tell myself: I ain’t seen nothing yet (yes). Some (including me) refer to it as the brave new world of blockchain concepts and technology – but Web 3.0 will sound better to those who are not into the systems world (even if managers should all be into it now – I agree with Accenture’s assessment on that).
Very quickly on this also: I totally disagree with Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s rather pessimistic view that ‘algorithms are replacing us, humans.’ Nonsense: algorithms can never substitute for man’s enormous capacity to digest tons of data and information intuitively – based on human experience and human learning and adaptation. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will never substitute for that: any serious brain researcher (I mean people like neuroscientists here) will tell you that trying to imitate the human brain by setting up massive parallel computing systems is a rather simplistic endeavour. In short, using Harari’s words against him: “Homo sapiens is not an obsolete algorithm.” On the contrary: homo sapiens is rocking and rolling. If anything, homo sapiens moved away from catering to immediate needs (a homo economicus) to a world of adventure, play and culture (homo ludens). In other words, man has never been in more control of destiny as now.
Just one personal example here: I do my own research in quantum physics (I love math and fuzzy logic) – and rather successfully so: my RI (research interest) score on ResearchGate is higher than 99% of all members who first published in 2020 (as a result, my RI is higher than 75% of all ResearchGate members now and, remarkably (because I stopped adding papers since last year) keeps climbing fast because reads and downloads keep going). I have been wanting to do this as a youth 30 years ago, but such personal research is only possible now because of the advanced search engines, peer-to-peer science forums, and free or extremely cheap advanced courses offered by platforms such as edX.org that are now available. Even ten years ago, I could not have done what I did in this area: the tools were, quite simply, not available then – and what I did in this field could never be imitated by massive parallel computers working out algorithms. 🙂
Another personal example: I wanted to update myself on blockchain technology, and did so by – yes – a fast online course from the Linux Foundation on edX. I paid only US$125 to get registered and certified. How is this possible? Because about 100,000 people followed this MOOC course with me. The edX platform has 40 million users now, and that reduces unit costs to such very affordable-to-all levels. In short, there are too many technology pessimists and (neo-)Luddites around, and I think of Dr. Hariri as one of them.
If you are a pessimist too, then you will say: what about the war with Russia? How can you be positive about that? Is that not the end of the world as we know it? My answer: No. I can confidently say this from my own adventure there. Me and many others went there to show support, with thousands of other European and other foreign volunteers. It worked. It boosted Ukrainian morale hugely. Russia cannot win, and it finally got Europe organized around a defense identity European leaders had been talking about ever since the EU was created. Now that defense identity is suddenly there: isn’t that great? I know this may come across as cynical but it is not: I think all of this is healthy and everything will be alright soon enough. Think of the grain export deal between Ukraine and Russia (great facilitation by the UN and Turkey, by the way): I see both sides acting logically, and the logic goes the right way as far as I can see: I think this Russia-Ukraine deal sets the way for more to follow.
Again, this is not to the point. For more of an assessment, with which you may agree or disagree, of course), see my blog on international politics. Back to the matter at hand: positive thinking. If there is any historical comparison to be made between the now and a past epoch, it is the ‘Roaring Twenties‘: we come out of war and a pandemic – just like then – and, hence, I think a new ‘period of prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge’ (I am quoting from Wikipedia here) is setting in – even if it may be a ‘boom and bust’ cycle with high inflation – as it was in the 1920s, which set the stage for the far less pleasant political (r)evolutions of the 1930s.
To sum up the remarks above, I personally do believe that we are, actually and finally, realizing Bentham’s 250-year old utopian dream: we are living in a world where we all cooperate to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, and (most of us) live – consciously or unconsciously – by his ‘fundamental axiom’: “the obligation to minister to general happiness – an obligation [which is] paramount to and inclusive of every other.” Pessimistic post-modern thought is out: renaissance, positivism, and Hegelian/Kantian enlightenment are back in (not only for me – but for many recent new philosophers: check the link – it is to a rather scholarly philosophical article that confirms the same).
OK. I am wandering very far away from the topics I wanted to write about here (I have a degree in philosophy too – so I just can’t help it), so let me get back on track and get on with it. The brief point I wanted to make in this introduction is this: no manager should think he can get back to the old way of doing things. It is not going to happen! There is no return to the status quo ante. We have to deal with it – as we always do (I like to think that the most significant trait of men versus other animals is our enormous capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing environment), and so I want to write how I am trying to cope with that as a independent consultant to help you to think that through as well and invite comments – through this trial blog – to help me think it through much better than I can do here on my own. 🙂
Note: Some of my readers may doubt the reality of the Web 3.0 dream with the repeated crashes of cryptocurrencies. To those I say: (1) cryptocurrency is there to stay: it is the final step in the dematerialization of money, as far as I can see, but it is just the speculative element about it that has to disappear (and these market crashes are good for that); (2) follow a basic course on blockchain technology and then you will think more in terms of trading non-fungible digital tokens (NFTs) rather than cryptocurrency (cryptocurrencies are just the first step or one of its many building blocks); (3) after the course, think about how the building blocks of the Web 3.0 world has already revolutionized what you are doing now on your mobile phone.
Also, I would recommend that you look at what is going to come out Mr. Xi Jinpeng’s (planned) visit to Saudi Arabia: the agenda is said to include discussions on the petrodollar and, potentially, the use of central bank digital currencies. This documentary YouTube video explains the rather enormous (but, all in all, positive) changes that could bring.
Enough of such macro-thinking: just think about how your job changed over the past few years. It is probably related to the same things: platform-driven businesses, digital value being exchanged on digital marketplaces, etcetera. It is all there, and it will continue to grow hugely. Firms who do not adapt, will be left behind – in what Schumpeter described as ‘creative destruction‘, also referred to Schumpeter’s gale. The latter sounds more positive: let us sail with these strong winds! 🙂
Organizations, management culture, style and diversity
Organizations can be defined in many ways, but I think no definition can capture all aspects or the entire complexity of the system. Semantic definitions reduce reality but, if I would have to use one, I’d say an organization is – at its core – a social system: a network of very diverse people from different background, with different expertise and styles. Individuality and collectivity mix here: an individual contributes to an immaterial social construct but – in return – this social construct is real and provides the individual who is part of it with a (very) large part of his social identity: we often define ourselves in terms of what we do, and what we do is work (mostly).
So that is an organization – roughly speaking. What is a style? A style is about individual behavior. From my 30+ year experience with organizations, I find that organizations differ greatly in accepting (or not) diversity of styles. The official rhetoric is always the same – “we embrace diversity and creativity” – but, to my surprise, not all senior managers (I am talking about the people above the project managers: the project portfolio managers who oversee various teams and project managers) are able to cope with what I refer to as ‘creative conflict’ – tension resulting from tough situations and discussions revolving around poor results, declining market shares, hard change, and other difficult things managers are supposed to deal with. Objective discussion about individual as well as team performance on a project will always be subjective – people talking about people – but the balance between facts and opinions is sometimes distorted. Of course, that is great for consultants – like me – who think they might have services to offer in the organizational change and project management business (especially when a ‘turnaround’ is needed), so I do not complain. 🙂
I have effectively been in a few situations where I was tasked – as outsider or interim project manager – with a turnaround: start something up (such as a spin-off of the UN’s IT projects in Afghanistan), move the project from inception to production, or help us to get to the next payment milestone (I think of a few PFM projects in Afghanistan and Nepal here – which were my main markets before I came back home again a few years ago). The objective is to make the client happy. That usually works but, if it does not (if the client is not happy), then I know it is not about the client but about team performance – which must be addressed both at the individual as well as the collective (team) level. Those cases are more difficult.
In most of these cases, I managed to please the client of my client by stepping in and getting ‘the job done’, but then sometimes I had to deal with resistance from the team of the firm who hired me: despite good intentions, interim managers are usually treated as outsiders and do not always (a euphemism, yes – I’d say: mostly) get the authority to swap horses within the team. If that happens, one ends up in a ‘team against the manager’ situation, and I am very relaxed about such situation: I think of it as an opportunity to give the project back to the team or organization who hired me, and I ‘bow out’ rather happily (I am in the comfortable position that I no longer work for money and I, therefore, have nothing to lose). I walk out with the satisfaction of another project well done – and sometimes it happens that my client comes back to me after a while: when they realize whatever it is that I tried to do as an independent consultant who was – perhaps – ‘a bit too independent’ or ‘a bit too aggressive’ on the first job. Clients coming back to me after a ‘tough job’ are my greatest satisfaction. 🙂
Turnaround jobs are difficult, but I am never worried about their dynamics: as a consultant or interim manager, you should make yourself superfluous and – if necessary – take a bullet for the team. [In Ukraine, I once was in a situation where I had to be ready to do literally that: draw possible enemy fire away from the team by taking distance and plenty of ammo (firepower, literally), so I could pretend to be the team if Russian troops would have landed after the Yavoriv strike (I talked about that in this Belgian news reel on the war). So I do know where such strong military-style expressions come from and what they mean – in real war.]
Let us talk about happier things again. Organizations and organizational performance. On that, I will be brief: complacency is the biggest enemy in any situation, and it is surely in organizations. Everyone talks about excellence and transformation. Few people realize what it takes: creative conflict around results. If the results are there, the client will be satisfied and pay for the services or goods provided, and the whole team should be happy too. A project manager should not be ‘the psychologist on duty.’
I sometimes think about my Q-center trainings with Accenture (previously Andersen Consulting), or the personal development courses from Krauthammer – which I all got in the 1990s. I think of them because I wonder if these are still as tough as then: I must assume that the rawer element of competition (up or out) is no longer there. ‘Winning at all cost’ is probably out as a expression in this new age of affluence, new political correctness (we must all be ‘green’ and ‘nice’ now) and – sorry for criticizing – the modern education system in which everyone is supposed to get a medal – even if it is just for participation only. On the latter, the link is to an article in Dutch which analyzes why the highly praised Belgian education system started lagging behind since factual knowledge and competitive selection was de-emphasized. I think of that as an evolution which created the Millennial Generation. It is a great new generation, but it does have a different mindset – with many advantages but also some disadvantages, I think. However, here too I am not worried about their future: it is ‘their’ turn and they will ‘do it’ – just like we did as the now ‘old’ generation. 🙂
Note: Lest I be misunderstood, let me make a few remarks on the debate that is raging in Belgium around the real or perceived deterioration of the quality of our educational system.
- First, the discussion mainly concerns primary and secondary school: despite the unification and harmonization of degrees, Belgium’s top universities stick to the old and trusted competitive model (tough first year in studies such as engineering and medicine, with drop-out rates as high as 50% despite mandatory or voluntary entrance exams and tests to evaluate the level of the student before he starts). I immediately add that Belgium’s top university (KU Leuven) is the only top-50 university in the world that is open and democratic (read: anyone can pay the fees thanks to the public nature of our system (generous government funding) – unlike the other 49 universities in the list (which are most private and, therefore, expensive).
- Second, the reform of the secondary school curriculum goes back to 1997 in Flanders, with the introduction of general development goals that teachers had to respect – as opposed to transferring knowledge. Students were supposed to do more research themselves as part of an attempt to let them think for themselves in an earlier stage. One example that strikes me is that math courses are much simpler now: the teaching of complex analysis (imaginary numbers) has been left out in most schools now. That is a sad development, because learning how to work with these ‘two-dimensional’ numbers simplifies a lot when working, for example, on easy physical problems such as oscillations or diffusion. More in general, I find that complex analysis (combined with matrix algebra) hugely helps in thinking in more abstract terms of multi-dimensional problems (it is one of the reasons why the great Leonhard Euler advocated that – from all his contributions to math – this should be taught first to ambitious smart youth).
- Finally, I cannot help but think young people should first learn a lot more facts and train their memory and analytical thinking skills before asking them to synthesize or reduce complex issues and problems in society to a pro or con conclusion.
- However, I will readily add that the young generation that comes out of the system is – generally speaking – a happier one: they have been taught to feel good about themselves no matter what. The attitude that life is there to be enjoyed – that it is not some kind of struggle or survival of the fittest contest – is a great advantage. I find youngsters generally more optimistic than we were at their age. That is great.
Sense-making in organizations
There is a lot of writing about sense-making in organizations now. Much more so now than when I was doing research on this and related topics at the University of Antwerp in the mid-1990s (contract management and principal-agent theory, transaction costs theory, the nature of the firm (Coase, Williamson), path dependency in institutional economics, markets with asymmetric information (Stiglitz), market power and regulation (Tirole) and other exciting economic analytical models).
Back in 1996, Koen Vandenbempt (who went on to lead the Antwerp Management School – while I sought adventure abroad) compared various models in an article we wrote together: you can read it here but it is in Dutch, unfortunately (for those who do not know Dutch). Those who cannot read Dutch, may want to explore one of many articles or books by one the leading writers on the topic of sense-making in organizations (and making sense of organizations): Karl E. Weick.
Talking about Weick and (personal and collective) sense-making brings me to the following point: some blame our so-called capitalist system for many perceived failures of society as a whole. First, we must acknowledge our capitalist system is not very capitalist at all: if anything, it is quite corporatist. I am a bit old and lived through quite a few revolutions. I studied in Berlin when the Wall came down, for example – it was a time when the Internet came into existence, and I am quite happy to now live in the Web 3.0 age: the Web of Things and Value.
Just to be clear on this: I use the term ‘corporatist’ in the old and neutral sense of the word – the one that stems from definitions as used in 19th century sociological theories (think of the positivist philosopher August Comte here, for example). I look at society as a well-functioning whole of ‘sectors’ (politics, business (large and small), civil society, law and other institutions) that – through the advent of almost immediate communication (Web 3.0 is also associated with peer-to-peer and horizontal networks – at the expense of ‘vertical’ coordination) – works remarkably well, and does address the longer-term issues that worries so many young people now (climate change adaptation, rooting out poverty and exclusion, etcetera).
On a personal note, I have two wonderful children – now adults in their own right – and I always give them the same message when they worry about the world or talk other existential issues: you live in a much better world now – much better than the world I grew up in. And positivism is back – in every sense of the word, but especially in its philosophical sense (postmodernism – with its nihilism and the ‘anything goes’ ideas – is out for me). I see the evidence for that in them: my daughter is an MD and does great things (in cancer research, for example), and my son is a civil engineer who works on very specific economic and engineering solutions to address the new energy crisis.
In any case – that is besides the point, I guess. I am just mentioning it here as an example of how one can never totally separate the personal (including one’s attitude vis-á-vis philosophical and existential questions) from one’s attitude in more anonymous settings such as – yes – an organization. Koen Vandenbempt and I referred to this fact linking the individual and his/her social setting as the ‘action perspective’, but now I am getting way too theoretical. Let me bring it all down by saying a few simple things about money and (life and societal) value(s) now.
Self-fulfillment: money versus value
I worked both in for-profit and nonprofit organizations – and I sometimes find people who question me on that: do we work for the money only? Do you believe in something and – if so – in what? The answer to that question has always been simple to me: money is important (that is what business is about, and we need money to lead a fairly troubleless life) – but, digging deeper, it is not about the money – it is about creating value. It is about serving society – in every possible way, and profit organizations do that just fine. Money is just the unit in which value is measured.
To be clear, I have worked both for free (not so often – but I did so in Ukraine quite recently), on handsome consultancy rates, and any remuneration inbetween. If I see value in a project, I will want to join it. However, a salary or a fee is a sign of respect for the value that you are supposed to produce, and so I want that too: I want to be paid. We all do. So that is my basic philosophy of life and business: it is not money – and it is even less about ego.
The real sense of fulfillment from of a job comes from what it brings to our society and to our physical world. That sounds exaggerated but think of it. Jobs change lives. Your own job surely changes your life, of course – but that is not the point: most people work more than the required 8 hours/day because they know that, through their job and through and outside of the organization they work for, they contribute to society and, thereby, change the lives – in a very positive way – of countless others. A happy smiling cashier in a supermarket is happy to get a smile back. Farmers, forest workers, technicians etcetera improve our physical world. So many simple and complicated examples can be given. In short, even those people who say they ‘only’ work for the money do not mean it: they work for the recognition it brings. I am an economist by training, but I readily agree that sociology and psychology bring the most interesting insights to the science of management (and marketing, for sure!). In short, life is complicated – and business is complicated. At the same time, it is also very simple; if you focus on delivering value, money comes easily. And life becomes work, and work becomes life – with neither of them feeling like a burden. On the contrary, both become part of a happy new ‘bleisure’ lifestyle (yes, I like that new concept).
Explaining such Zen-like contradictions would bring me back to Karl Weick – and other social theorists, organizational psychologists, institutional thinkers, management gurus – there are so many inspiring writers! – so I will leave it at that and move to the next topic.
Project management styles
There are various styles that work. Each project manager has its own personality, and he should not artificially try to change it to ‘fit in.’ At best, he can change his tactics and adapt his communications – but he should follow his intuition and always deliver the message that must be delivered to do what needs to be done – in as polite a way as possible, of course!
As for my own style and conviction as a project manager, I believe in the following principles:
1. Always try harder (yes, the Avis slogan – but it is so much more – a management philosophy, really). No firm or organization has superior knowledge or expertise, but individuals do! Hence, we can and should always do better by pushing internal resources to go the extra mile and – if needed – tap external resources for lingering performance gaps or continuing weaknesses.
Always aim higher than the goal because, once you release the arrow, things always come down a bit – because of gravity – read: internal friction, or lingering negativity within the team, doubts about the feasibility of the system, the absence of a culture of excellence, team members in charge just going by the book or – worse – only delivering what he or she thinks of as a ‘good enough’ product for the client. The notion of ‘good enough’ is useful but should not be the guiding principle when doing a project and trying to satisfy a client – especially not on large project with many interdepencies or other partners co-delivering: some toughness is unavoidable !
2. Try to manage by ‘walking/wandering around’. I am the first to acknowledge that this is very difficult in the current hybrid working environment, in which management by emails, online meetings and timesheets has become the norm. That works – in a typical ‘good enough’ way, perhaps – but it is not ideal and far from ideal or excellent. Being together in one room and hammering out things together in a tough live workshop is far more efficient than going from online meeting to online meeting and hoping that people will do what they are supposed to do inbetween the meetings.
3. If MBWA is not possible (again, it is difficult with the current online (post-)COVID or, at best, hybrid mode of working now), you must try to find a way to watch what people are doing: reduce the number of meetings and pick up the phone instead, or start an email dialogue with advice or thoughts on the topic to the person who is working on this or that without putting everyone else in cc. It is not about visibility: let people reply and put others in cc if necessary. [Personally, I find that many people do reply with too many other people in cc, which distracts away from the work and makes me think we should all invest more in email etiquette in this new working environment. My problem is that I wrote too many – but it is hard to find balance with large teams – especially as a newcomer who has to prove him- or herself.]
4. Do take over – if needed – from project team members to show them how you think things should get done – but do also try to do so in a way that is non-threatening, and do hand the task back as soon as possible. A good project manager must not micro-manage, but he must – if needed – step in and make sure a specific deliverable is delivered on quality, on budget and on time. He must mainly ‘go wide’, but he must also have the required sector knowledge and expertise to ‘go deep.’
The main problem here – I fall into that trap regularly – is that you slowly start working more and more (read: too hard – one should not do 100+ hour workweeks) and – worse – that you are getting way too hands-on. That may lead to a little ‘burn-out’ on the project after a while or – more likely – frictions with your team. Ensuring time-off and empowering your deputy project manager to take over from time to time (in all aspects – communication with the client as well as operational leadership of the project) is the key to avoiding such risk. But that is not always possible: some projects fail because the project leader and his deputy do not feel or trust each other, or when unsound personal competition sets in, or other issues beyond one’s control.
In Flemish we say: “You can’t turn a draft horse into a race horse.” That is true, but both are needed and one should always try to keep the horses in good shape and train them as best as you can. Again – you should, of course, first apply that saying to yourself and try to improve yourself! Finding a better work-life balance is a top goal for me too, but projects do have their own life. Client timelines, for example, will always determine yours as a project manager, and there is nothing you can do about that.
5. Smile ! Always ! 🙂
What? Is that PM guidance? Yes. I think of it as my greatest strength: I keep smiling in each and every situation (and surely on the image next to this post – a difficult climb through bad weather on Mont Blanc in 2015 – guiding my brother and just pushing through to get where we had to get). How can I do that? I am not sure. I am just a very happy person – great kids, friends and family and all that – and having survived several dicey situations in Afghanistan (and also in Ukraine working on a frontline job – literally) – and cancer too – has made me strong(er) too.
Indeed, I am a cancer survivor. Two of my relatives died from it a few years ago, and their death led me to realize it might be genetic and so, unlike them, I went for preventive check-ups, which worked: my cancer got detected in an early stage and I started treatment (it was dealt with by robotic surgery) on time. That feat changed my worldview profoundly: I cannot really be worried anymore (especially not about small setbacks or what the Business Insider magazine lists as the ‘top 50 First World problems‘). Here I also think of Hariri’s nonsense about the ‘battle between man and technology.’ It is nonsense because it amounts to neo-Luddism: my cancer was genetic and advanced robotic surgery (aptly referred to as modern-day Da Vinci technology) took care of it. Another brother of mine got himself checked too and he went through the same, which put the dead/life score in my family from 2-0 to 2-2 last year. This technology was not available twenty years ago, and it has the kind of AI and software at its heart that Dr. Hariri seems to despise. I do not: AI empowers us – it does not make us obsolete. On the contrary. The key lesson I learned from this rather moving experience is this: every day is a gift, and one must make the best of it. If the day starts well, then you should work hard to make sure it ends well too. And if the day starts badly, do not worry: you can usually turn it around, somehow. And if not: tomorrow is another day. Paraphrasing the title of a famous book and movie (Eat, Pray, Love), I sometimes just tell myself: “Get up, work (very) hard today (again), and sleep.” 🙂
I am straying from the topic again. To sum it all up, when friends asked me what would be different about my company, my answer was: “Nothing different. It is about the same thing: getting things done with a smile.” My business was always about that – and it has worked so far: no need to change a winning horse (be it a draft of a race horse). 🙂 When I have trouble smiling (it happens sometimes), I remind myself that I am (also) paid to smile, even if it is not explicitly mentioned in my contract. To stimulate your thinking on this, here is the advertisement that ultimately made Avis the number one instead of the number two firm. Renting out cars is ‘easy’ (just fleet management, right?) or ‘not very exciting’? Nonsense. Think again: the Avis story is fascinating. 🙂
Useful project management tools
I have used Prince2, PMI/PMBOK standards, and, more recently, PM square as a project management methodologies. I have been involved in a lot of projects in very diverse sectors. When I add it all up, their combined value is over one billion USD, but that includes the management of large Belgian aid budgets in priority countries during my diplomatic career as well as even larger conditional aid budgets on which I did technical advice as part of PFM/FRA TA projects so this huge amount includes a lot of indirect involvement. In any case, I learned a lot from all of these projects (each one was unique) and – from that experience – I would select the following as the most important project management (PM) tools:
1. Good plannings for all the various aspects of the project or programme: such plannings must be multi-level (with a sharp focus on the interdependencies between project components: what needs to be done first to enable the next?) and the component-wise plannings must be specific and, therefore, must be managed by the component leads – with quality assurance done by the project manager (is the plan realistic and detailed enough, and do we have a plan B if plan A would not work?).
Personally, I am a firm believer in timeboxing: put the big milestones first (these are usually dictated by the client’s timeline), and work back from there – scheduling more resources (inputs) to achieve the time goals on each of the specific tasks or sub-projects. Timeboxing avoids a typical pitfall that some projects suffer from: results-based management gives way to ‘perpetual planning’: flexibility is good but – at some point – the plan has to ‘bite’ – and timeboxing (adapting resources and inputs rather than the timeline itself) is the way to make sure it does. I could write more about that (for me, timeboxing is superior as a technique in comparison with all others) but the link is there to do your own research on that.
2. A good results framework: projects must be adaptative managed – yes, scrum-style meetings and agile methodologies are the ones to go for – and one can only do that based on operational project performance dashboards. In short, never think of the results framework as an additional reporting burden: break the contractual performance targets down into a SMART operational performance indicator framework, which will help you to ‘drive’ the program or project through the results chain (illustrated below). It is variously referred to as results- or evidence-based management (RBM) or – a more neutral term, perhaps – a data-driven approach to project management and decision-making.
For guidance here, I refer to USAID’s Learning Lab, which offers excellent advice and templates for breaking down higher-level logical key performance targets into SMART practical performance indicators by developing performance indicator reference sheets (PIRS). I try to introduce these also on projects where it is not a requirement: they are just useful to show the client what and how can and will be measured on the project as part of a data-driven adaptive or agile management approach.
3. Good version control of documents and deliverables: it may look exaggerated to list as my number three concern, but it is. I am heavily influenced here by my systems training: the building blocks of any system must be carefully and regularly adapted and be inserted into the whole to make sure all is in sync and the updated element is inserted seamlessly. It also helps greatly in ‘planning’ for the production – as a team effort – of, say, a good inception report.
Also, a detailed version control section in a document gives the client confidence that a written document is the product of a team (each document should have one ‘owner’ – who is responsible overall – but should, ideally, have more co-authors working together creatively. In addition, the version control section should show the internal procedure for quality assurance and release to the client.
I like the EU Commission’s preferred management methodology (PM2) because it emphasizes that a lot too, and all of its template reports (click here for the PM2 Wiki, and then download the PM2 artefacts/templates) provide for such version control.
4. A regular (a continuous one in your mind as PM, I’d recommend) SWOT analysis of the project.
The latter element is something you may not be so familiar with or – if you are familiar with it – you may wonder how you apply it to a project (it is, indeed, a tool that is used more when working a larger thing – such as a marketing or change management strategy for a company). I am quite familiar with that too, but I also apply it to the project I happen to run or be involved with. It works as a ‘mental map’ of risks and issues I feel need to be solved. An honest assessment of the status of the project, so to speak and – of course – one should always focus more on threats and weaknesses than on strengths and opportunities. Again: always remember that complacency – abundant self-congratulations – is the enemy – always ! One learns from successes (this thing works!), but one learns a lot more from what does not work: failure is a great learning school!
So how does it work? Take the blank SWOT diagram (one version of it is presented below – but you may want to adapt it develop your own template) and start inserting topics from the senior and project management meetings:
Strengths/weaknesses: Look at the various moving pieces on the project, and assess them honestly: are they on track? Is the client happy about them? Or not. These are the strengths and weaknesses of the project, respectively. Their original is internal, indeed (see the definition in the template) – and it is your job as a project manager to fix things that are not going well: you have to get all project components and tasks and aspects of the project or the programme into the ‘strengths’ box – if possible.
Opportunities/threats: These are issues and topics which you cannot do anything immediately – and that is why they are said to be of external origin. It may be client perception (perhaps something happened on a project before, and the client has some doubts on performance because of that), or the management culture of the organization you are trying to serve. Or internal team dynamics may not be optimal and you do not quite know how to change them (it is not easy with the current hybrid mode of home working and limited physical contact with coworkers). Or the project governance structure (no clear distinction between point of contact, business manager and contract manager – or other roles and responsibilities – on both the client as well as the service provider side – may not be clearly defined). Or it may be lingering negativity because the project is perceived as being (too) difficult and too many people are just in a wait-a-see mode as a result. In short, opportunities and threats are all the things you do not have handle on, and some of these may be real threats to how you do as a project manager.
Personally, I find the distinction between internal and external origin somewhat artificial. I think of the distinction – and that is in line with most interpretations of SWOT models – more a distinction between: (1) what can you change or have an impact on in the short term (project performance – definitely – that is your job as PM) and (2) what can you change in the longer run (client satisfaction – for sure – if your project performs well – and, yes, you can grow and have an impact on your organization and your team by convincing them of your model of excellence and impressing them with your efforts).
Take this SWOT analysis very seriously as project manager and try to use it with your senior management, your ‘sherpa’ team as incoming manager (if you have one) and, most importantly, your team (not with your client, of course). Use it as a communication tool: it makes difficult discussions about project and team performance more objective and helps everyone to improve and – hopefully – move everything into the ‘strengths’ cell of the matrix over time altogether.
Finally, another very useful model I always keep in mind is the organizational maturity model. It is based on Carnegie Mellon’s CMMI model for software integration and systems projects, but I also like to apply – in a rather simple way – to an analysis of how ‘mature’ we are in terms of process improvement on a project.
One interesting thing about the least mature (or most immature) level, is that it is associated with ‘competent people and heroics’ (illustrated below): a limited number of individuals – most notably the project manager – who seem to get everything done. One may see this as a ‘hallmark of excellence’ – but it is not: good work is good work done by the organization as a whole. Again, it is not about ego or ‘personalities‘ (I do tend to agree a bit with this from my own ‘practice’ – but I am just saying that this is the ‘science’ about it). [To be honest, I do like ‘heroes’ on a project, and I think they also have a role to play even in perfectly ‘process-oriented’ and ‘controlled’ or ‘more mature’ approaches to organizing a large project or a large function of an organization.]
Project management, Sun Tzu and the Art of War
It is probably because I spent too many years and experiences in war zones (Afghanistan, mainly – but also Ukraine earlier this year) that I do think of myself as a bit of a ‘project warrior’ – both when developing business proposals as well as when I am serving in a project management or key expert role. I will not say too much about that, but just quote and comment on the five ‘Heads of War’ as Sun Tzu calls them:
1. The Moral Law: the guiding values and moral principles. You need to be on the right side of them.
2. Heaven: night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. I always think of my mountain climbing (including guiding) experiences here: one must constantly evaluate the snow and weather conditions and respect them. Sometimes they work against you, and then you just have to patiently wait.
3. Earth: distances, danger and security, open ground or narrow passes, the chances of life and death. I think of this as ‘situational awareness’ – tactics (as opposed to the more strategic evaluation of the factors of Heaven).
4. The Commander (read: the project manager, or (mountain) guide) and his/her virtues: wisdom, sincerity and good faith, benevolence and humanity, courage, and strictness (self-respect, self-control or ‘proper feeling’).
5. Method and Discipline. That needs no further explanation. It is related to practice. Wisdom and knowledge are good (otherwise you do not know where you are or where you want to be next), but only practice gets you what you want and to the place where you need to go next (from ‘base camp’ to ‘advanced camp’ on a mountain, for example – or from one project milestone to the next).
Does this sound esoteric? I once had the privilege to work with General David Petraeus (I was Belgium’s Head of Mission as a diplomat (my last post) in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009). So… Well… I have a number of role models, but he is surely one of them. He had a calm and quiet about him – combined with what I can only describe as an inspiring ‘nuclear energy’ – and guess what? He loves Sun Tzu (as well as the writings of the more modern Chinese hero Mao Tse-tung) too!
Gen Petraeus was a strong believer in ‘live’ interactions too. As the top US general in Afghanistan, he managed billion-dollar budgets: the direct US military budget over the 20 years of engagement (read: war) was US$1+ trillion and, adding indirect costs (e.g., veteran care and borrowing costs) but excluding the cost of civilian-led efforts, the figure adds up to US$2.3 trillion. And he also did that by ‘walking’ around – or flying around, I should say: he visited every little corner of the country to talk directly to commanders and soldiers.
They knew the terrain very well – yet, the war was lost. Despite all efforts, the US Army did not win ‘hearts and minds’ (a strategy which – ironically, perhaps – goes back to Mao’s philosophy of guerilla war and occupying the countryside as part of a war of attrition against cities. However, that story has nothing to do with management. If anything, I should refer to Sun Tzu’s first ‘head of war’: perhaps things turned into disaster because the West was not entirely on the right side of the Moral Law.
One US diplomat whom I admire greatly is Bill Wood. He came from Columbia (fighting a war on drugs rather than a war on terrorism) to Afghanistan (where drugs and violence are – sadly – also closely related, which is what he also focused on as ambassador in Afghanistan). He was always pleased to interact with me, and I made the above remark (combined with a recommendation to try negotiation as well – but such advice was not taken back in 2007-2008) – at the occasion of a small dinner party at his residence in the Green Zone – on the importance of being on the right side of the moral law, he gave me the greatest compliment I have ever received: “Your brain is worth more than a thousand US special forces.” He added, though: “But you could be a bit more diplomatic as a diplomat.”
I often think about that, because one has to be not only smart but diplomatic on projects too: military-style management is only possible (or allowed) in the military. 🙂 Hierarchy is an odd thing: it must – as much as possible – be based on respect earned through experience and expertise but, if such respect for the leader is not there, authority and hierarchy must still be respected, and it will usually do the trick as well. As mentioned already, my experience is that horizontal organizations work perfectly well, but project teams need strong structure – including vertical structure. Every commander in a battlefield wants to be loved by his men, but he knows that – if one has to choose between love and respect – it should be respect. [I think the best commanders are feared and loved at the same time – but that is a goal that cannot always be reached.]
As for mistakes that may be made during a project – by team members and/or the project manager – I have two guiding principles to deal with such setbacks: (1) success is always the success of the team (not of the project manager), but failure is always the failure of the project manager (always); and (2) the good thing about failure is that one learns a lot more from setbacks than success – so one must always do a good ‘lessons learnt’ exercise on it and then move it: stronger – not weaker – than before. The best project managers know their weaknesses and all of the mistakes they have made but have learnt from them and came out stronger – hopefully. [I think we also all know people who just continue to do what they always do out of fear for changing, and I find that the job market has a remarkable degree of tolerance for them.]
The importance of personality (and developing your personal brand)
I talked of many things here – too many, I guess (and in a way that is too verbose too) – but I did not talk about the importance of personality yet. I could quote a variety of authors here, but let me just quote some ancient Asian wisdom again. The first is attributed to Lao Tzu, and is an important guideline for my own personal development:
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
Watch your words, they become your actions;
Watch your actions, they become your habits;
Watch your habits, they become your character;
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
There is another quote from Lao Tzu, which is very much related to the above:
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
How do you get there? I am not sure. Going through many experiences – good ones and bad ones, and always getting back on your feet after a bad experience – is surely one thing which knowledge or advice cannot substitute for. I personally engage in Zen philosophy and meditation, and my agenda for that is also that of Lao Tzu, who lived to old age, and looked back at it happily:
“At fifteen I set my heart upon learning.
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground.
At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities.
At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.
At sixty, I heard them with docile ear.
At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”
I am 53 now – and I may have a bit late in ‘planting my feet firm on the ground’ (and it also took me longer than the prescribed 40 years to ‘no longer suffer from perplexities’) – but I am all there now – and I think I surely know what the biddings of Heaven are now. 🙂 Again, you may find all of this esoteric but just google and you will see there is an awful lot of literature and coaching on how to use ‘Zen in business‘ and I do find the key principles very meaningful while making sense of my own business. For example, I do not know the company I provided the link to, but I do believe claims like this make sense: “The Zen team designs opportunities for you to step out of your individual and collective comfort zones, which requires courage and authenticity, and results in growth.”
Finally, in the journey that you make or will be making a project or business development manager, I have one advice: always work on your personal brand – but remember: your personal brand, that is you! There is no substitute for you. So change/improve your personal brand by changing/improving yourself. 🙂
Let me wrap up with some concluding remarks. The first are about style and communication – which may or may not help to build up that personal brand of yours (see below). These things may look obvious – but I myself need to improve on these things on a daily basis, so I do not think of the advice below as being easy to follow. 🙂
The final is about personality and style again. Again, many styles work well, but all that work are about true leadership, and so I will conclude with an image of the front cover of a book I like on true leadership. 🙂
For the rest, a question that sets many people on the issue of management style and the ‘right’ organizational culture apart now: do you like Elon Musk?. I mentioned him already (in the context of his order to get back to the office) but here is my firm answer: yes, I admire him as a role model. I do believe leaders must set an example by working extremely hard (100+ hour workweeks are no exception for me – I will, of course, not demand the same from project team members).
From all the advice in Musk’s tips (of all links I put here, click this one and read the list of tips carefully). The one I need to work on is conciseness: from the length of this post, you can see that I am not very good at that. But it is tough: with people working at home, many emails (with a lot of detail) are necessary – and, sadly, I do find myself managing more and more based on cold project tasks and task scheduling – possibly combined with timesheets (how else do you watch people nowadays?). It is sad: less fun at work – but, rest assured, still plenty of it remains.
Post scriptum: on proposal writing
I did not talk much about business development, so let me add this post scriptum on it. The times when a smart wordsmith – with expertise and knowledge of the sector – could turn out a proposal and win are gone, I think. Proposal writing is teamwork and proper process must be respected. Competition is much harsher than it used to be – with many more firms – both old and established as well as new challengers – bidding on large projects.
Again, there is no ‘secret’ to winning according to me: one must just be very strategic and – even more than when managing a project – be hard-nosed and tough with the team: a ‘good enough’ philosophy and attitude does not work well in projects, and works even less when trying to win a project. Again: complacency is the biggest enemy in any situation, and it is surely is when working on a bid. Excellence and ‘creative conflict’ to create the ‘best possible’ proposal that will get the organization or firm shortlisted are key.
Because of the effort, I always advise firms to be strategic about their bids: is the opportunity an opportunity that goes straight to the heart of your core business, or are you just shooting on anything that moves? Be smart and invest in market intelligence (and also in market intelligence and networking and preparing before the tender comes out).
As for process, I stick to a rather traditional model – which is rather common to larger firms but not necessarily being followed by smaller ones.
Proposal development strategy and timeline
1. First step is the blue draft: a good proposal outline – including winning themes, implementation strategy, suggested partners and suggested key personnel.
It is good practice to already set up separate team meetings at this stage – using the timeline between the tender and proposal submission date – to discuss partners and personnel and – if needed – on specific cross-cutting themes (gender and inclusion, conflict sensitivity, environment, or other cross-cutting themes that are relevant to the project). Also, one should set a separate ‘Green Team’ to start preparing the budget and prepare for pricing and development of the budget narrative (see below).
2. This should be reviewed in a workshop-style creative blue draft feedback session – with reviewers who are prepared and – possibly – external experts. The blue draft review team should focus on new ideas – in all of the above areas. It is not about style or language in this stage. Based on the comments and new ideas from the review team, work on the pink draft can start.
3. A pink draft should be 75-90% complete – including a first draft of the many annexes that are usually required because of increasingly complicated compliance rules imposed by the client.
4. The pink draft review team will – possibly – also come up with more strategic guidance but should be tactical. The objective is to provide very detailed comments and suggest additions or text changes. Criticism should be constructive. For example, when a reviewer thinks this or that part of the proposal is weak, he should provide alternative text or structure.
During the pink draft review, the team should – ideally – also make final choices on partners and key personnel (not only the proposed managers but also the key ST/LT experts). Before the pink draft review, the proposal should also be coordinated with the ‘Green Team’ (finance officer or finance department) to develop the budget template, calculate the budget, and prepare the budget narrative.
5. The red draft should be 100% complete – include fully drafted annexes – and the technical proposal should – at this stage – be aligned with the cost proposal. The red draft review team (which may vary slightly in composition from the blue or pink draft review team) should provide new language if not satisfied with existing language: this should not be thrown back at the consultant or technical bid writer: he/she has had two iterations on the text already at this stage and, hence, it is now up to the team to finalize.
6. Gold and/or white drafting (final proposal) is the responsibility of the firm – not of the consultant.
So what team do you need for that?
I like to think in terms of roles and responsibilities. Some of these roles and responsibilities may be taken up by one individual or – conversely – one specific role or responsibility may be split between several team members. Here they are:
1. The business lead: This will usually be the overall business manager or another senior manager in the firm or organization, and he or she should be in a position to marshall additional resources (if needed), ensure that the team sticks to the bid development calendar, and provide general strategic guidance. He acts as a principal, in other words. In Sun Tzu’s Art of War parlance, he or she would be referred to as ‘the General.’
2. The bid manager: The bid manager is the operational day-to-day manager of the bid: the project manager, so to speak, or – using Art of War parlance again (it is not wrong to think of a bid as ‘war’ in my view) ‘the Commander.’
3. The focal point for partnerships: great partnerships with other organizations are usually a requirement (in today’s complex world, firms need to cooperate and bring expertise and capabilities together). They are also a ‘core asset’ on the bid (see below).
4. The knowledge manager: he/she organizes all data, documents, and information (e.g., new market intel) and ensures proper dissemination of these throughout the team.
5. The focal point for head-hunting (international + local): extremely important! Writing out ‘the Dream’ is easy, but the evaluators will likely go quickly to the annex with personnel to see who is going to deliver this dream project – not approximately, but exactly.
6. The Green Team Lead (see the remarks on finance and budgeting above).
7. GESI, MEL + other technical specialists [GESI stands for gender and social inclusion, MEL is monitoring, evaluation and learning. Good GESI and MEL strategies are typical requirements for development projects, so on projects in other sectors, you must see what is needed there (cf. the ‘winning themes’ that you need to identify.]
8. The integrator (bid consultant – lead writer): this is the man or woman who brings everything together in a written product: the proposal. It must be a ‘gem’: nicely polished, and all sides of the diamond must be aligned to make it sparkle. For example, the results framework must ‘speak’ seamlessly to the implementation approach and vice versa. The client does not like duplication but will like good cross-referencing throughout the document. Again, a good mapping between the technical and financial proposal is essential. A good writer will also ensure the whole document has the same look and feel. It must be a ‘good read’: not an entanglement of individual contributions.
Core assets and requirements
I did not write much about knowledge management, the headhunting effort that is usually required and the other roles and responsibilities. However, these aspects should be clear from the following overview of core assets and essential requirements:
Key assets in a bid (absolutely essential things):
- Partnerships: consortium partners need to cover all relevant technical areas (e.g., PFM and/or sectoral expertise)
- Key personnel (Team Leader + one or two Key Experts)
- Good CVs for non-key personnel (ST/LT experts)
Key requirements (what does the proposal need to demonstrate?):
- Good technical understanding (context) – including scenarios
- Good implementation strategy – including the right partnerships, a learning strategy
- Good management approach (including a preliminary implementation plan)
- Adaptive management and flexibility (but, at the same time, full compliance with the RFP)
Again, all this is easily said but not easily done! If there is any secret to it, then is just experience and practice – reinforced by strong quality assurance on the processes involved – and, yes, making sure that you are trying harder than your competitors. 🙂