Tag Archives: performance

5 key steps to get a derailed project back on track


Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless – Thomas Edison

I have been lucky for the number of occasions where I was asked to put a derailed project back on track. The recovery of a troubled project is a great learning opportunity for any organization. When it goes wrong, it can go wrong really fast and oftentimes with severe impact. On the other hand, the learnings can be of value for a lifetime, nut only when one is receptive to it. There are five simple steps to turn a project around:

Sit down and listen: The first thing you want to do is to meet with the people who represent different internal and external stakeholder groups. Listen with empathy. Seek to understand first, before to be understood. Conduct a detailed impact analysis that clarifies the root cause of the derailment. Keep digging in case of conflicting information, up to the point where the facts speak for themselves. Be audacious in asking for information when you believe its available, but appears to be inaccessible. Escalate if you need to. Leverage senior level relationships

Structure your findings: Document your findings in such a way that it can be easily shared with stakeholders upon request, and retrieved for presentations. Create a separate ‘living document’ to capture lessons-learned. What has worked for me in the past, is to structure the findings by business process, technology and stakeholder or stakeholder group. These are three key dimensions of the solution the project is about to deliver, and people can easily relate to when you discuss your findings

Build a coalition of positive advocates: While you are making your rounds to gather information, you’ll find out who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. At a certain point in time you need to rally the troops to re-start the project and you can only do that when you have established a coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome. The key purpose of the coalition is to drive change throughout the lifecycle of the project, and make sure that key stakeholders remain aligned and committed. Especially at the start when things can be messy and ambiguous, you need leadership support to keep things moving forward, make small adjustments and celebrate quick wins

Present options to move forward: When you have got your facts straight, completed the root cause analysis, defined options and a recommendation, developed a plan, and got buy in from the key stakeholders, it is time for an official presentation of your findings and plan to move forward. The presentation is the first milestone of recovery and start of a new begin. That moment in time must be celebrated and marked as the turn-around point. The presentation is more of a formal approval of the new approach, as you have already obtained your approvals ahead of time through a number of preliminary meetings with the Executives. Make sure that the key messages are shared with all project stakeholders with the right level of detail. Transparency and openness are key values as you move forward and put the project back on track

Rebuild the team: Re start the project with the right people and make use of the momentum to assess the integrity and capability of the project team. Make the necessary changes as required. This applies to internal and external resources. Look further than the required knowledge, experience and skills. Think about personality, leadership style, motivational aspects and willpower. Establish a team with leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make it happen. Aim for a world-class team that has the guts, courage and bravery to deliver with relentless effort. Re build trust in the team.

There is a reason why projects derail and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as there is a willingness to learn and do it different and better the next time. By adjusting plans and strategies, and by making changes to the approach and team, organizations will be able to behave themselves out of the troubled situation, and oftentimes faster than they think.

Bas de Baat

How do you put your project team in the zone

Team Concept


Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work – Vince Lombardi

When you hear about flow and being in the zone, you almost always associate that with sports. The performance improvement of an individual athlete or sports team is increasingly based on science and technology, along with the deep practice and motivational triggers. For a project team it shouldn’t be much different you would say. Have you ever wondered how you put a project team in the zone?

Before we go into more detail, let’s define first what the concept of in the zone or flow actually means. According to Wikipedia it is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

My personal experience in leading project teams is that flow is very much about exceeding expectations by being aware of what’s happening in the present moment, having a monomaniacal focus on a single goal or key tasks, being driven by an abundance of energy and inspiration, and by being intrinsically motivated by a higher level purpose in work or life.

To put your project team in the zone, there are 5 conditions that need to be met.

Clarify the purpose – This is much more than a communication from the Executive Sponsor of what the project is about in terms of objectives and scope, and why it is so important to the organization. Purpose starts to live when team members are able to relate it to their own world. Many of them think about ‘what’s in it for me?’ Once they are able to connect project to personal goals, the purpose of the project becomes meaningful for the individual. At that point you have got their commitment, and it is up to the project leadership team to keep it. Give this step as much time as it needs

Focus the team – There is long term and short term focus that needs to be addressed. At the start of the project you must focus the entire project team on the future state. ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’ As you move closer to the end-state, you need to refresh the outlook continuously, not only when it changes. This is all part of the long term focus. Equally important is to focus the team on interim goals and key tasks, or the short term priorities. Although many of us will say that they are great at multi-tasking, in reality they are not. There are two dynamics that you need to be cognizant of at all times that trigger you to multi-task: distraction and procrastination. Both of them force you to demonstrate behaviour that looks like multi-tasking. When people are distracted it is often because there is a foreign task appearing on their to work list. Oftentimes it is outside their control. Remove distractors at all times as soon as you see them. Procrastination is harder to deal with, because it is a personality trait. The most effective way to remove this barrier is to go back to the purpose of the project and the value it has for the individual. Procrastination goes away when you entice the intrinsic motivation of the person involved.

Establish one communication matrix – When you form teams, you are in a situation where the members can come from many origins with different knowledge, experience, skills, personalities, interests and cultures. It takes awhile to get the team to a performance level. A critical step in that process is to level-set or calibrate to a single operating model and communication matrix. ‘Team members must start to sing from the same song sheet shortly after they onboard the project’. As an example, an organization launches a project to implement an enterprise wide business solution. They have selected an external consulting firm to implement the solution. The organization has identified top talent to join the project as key resources. The set expectations are very high. The team members are highly motivated and know their business very well, but not the new technology. In this situation, it must be imperative that these team members are being educated on the new technology before the project starts. In reality this is oftentimes not happening for a number of reasons, available budget being one if them. Education is crucial. Not only to bring them up to speed on the features of the solution, but more from a communication perspective. Once the team members have been trained, they are able to speak the same language as the consultants. That has an immense impact on the quality of the solution design, but also all subsequent steps in the project.

Give immediate feedback – High-performing teams know their plays. They know when to start, how to work together, finish, and pick up the next task to do the same thing over and over again. ‘Their brains wire and fire together.’ During the execution of the work it is critical to give immediate performance feedback for two reasons. At first, you want to team to grow and further improve, and second, the work needs to continue and hit the right level of quality on time and on budget. You cannot afford to hold back on giving feedback. Create a project culture where team members feel that it is okay to fail. The best project teams have a reversed balloon effect in failures. Or in other words, they get less and less over time. That can only happen when people can speak freely about mistakes and where leadership fosters progressive learning. One of the things that I frequently do in projects is to hold daily stand-up meetings (even when it is a waterfall project) where team members speak about what has transpired, what is up next and what is holding them up. This can become an effective communication platform over-time when there is the right level of interaction. If there is a lack of interaction, most likely the organizational culture is much different as the project culture that you want to establish. In that case, one of the better options to provide immediate feedback is to have frequent meetings with the key resources on the team.

Clear the way – Any project team, high-performing or not, will run into obstacles that they cannot remove without assistance. Regardless of their autonomy, creativity and collaborative willpower. How do you keep your team in the zone when they hit a wall? Take a time-out as many as you think the team needs. Of course, effective leaders, try to minimize this by being a few steps ahead of the team by exploring the path that the team will eventually follow. Nevertheless, their will be situations where the stop light flips on red and you need to call a time-out. In that case, you pull the team together and analyze the situation. You always must consult the team and seek their input. Keep them involved and close to the fire. Missing out on that steps increases the risk of derailment further down the road. Work with the team on options and drive towards consensus on the decision and next play. This approach also applies to situations where an issue gets escalated to the executive level or when a third-party gets involved. Always keep the team closely involved and make them part of the process.

Flow or being in the zone is a concept that can very well be used in project management. When I kick-off projects, I frequently draw a comparison between a project team and a NBA basketball team. If you really think about it, there is not much difference in the mechanics. High-performing project teams consists of members that really want to play together and know how to play as one team. When they go on the court, the have a purpose, they are focused on closing a deliverable, they speak the same language to properly execute the play, they give immediate feedback to progress and learn, and finally they switch to different plays each time the opponent blocks them. Ultimately they make the basket and finish the project successfully.

Bas de Baat

Under pressure everything becomes fluid

Nobody works better under pressure. They just work faster – Brian Tracy

There is a misunderstanding that under pressure people perform better. Pressure to a certain degree is fine and can have a positive impact on performance, because people become aware of the fact that things have to get done. But too much pressure will have a negative effect on the quality of output. And if that happens the probability of rework at later stages in the project goes up significantly.

Under pressure everything becomes fluid. In other words, when hitting deadlines becomes the primary driver and focus, deliverables will eventually get done, but oftentimes with lack of quality. People start to demonstrate irrational behaviour, remove standards and constraints, and go the extra mile to get the job done with making sacrifices. This makes sense, because in the devils triangle of project scope (quality), schedule and cost, the latter two are fixed, and the only variable that can move is scope.

When the project schedule is aggressive and tight, the risk of a balloon effect is high. At the start of the project, people believe they have tons of time to complete the work. You actually see the opposite happening. People are focused on scope and quality of output, instead of schedule. But as we go, those two variables start to shift.

What can you do as project manager to mitigate the ‘risk of pressure’?

  • Build a hierarchy of schedules that reflect the milestones, dependencies, tasks and deliverables. That sounds simple, but in reality people struggle to build meaningful schedules. They need to be granular enough for the level you report status. You need to be able to communicate the schedule. Many project managers are challenged to find the right level of detail. If there is too much or too little, nobody else than the project manager looks at the schedule. I would recommend to use 3 schedules. One for the executive level that you use for steering committees and CXO. One for the program or project level. And one at the team level. You build them top down, and validate them bottom up by assessing the work and estimates against the time line
  • Communicate the schedule and report accurate status. How many times have you been in projects, where you knew there was some sort of schedule, but you did not know the details, nor did you have access to it? It happens more than you think and if it does, you can rightfully wonder if there is one. Project managers must communicate the schedule and status at a minimum on a weekly basis at the project and team level. For the executive level and CXO it can be bi-weekly to monthly. Status reports have to be accurate and complete. But how do you know that you something is accurate? For deliverables and tasks that are on the critical path you want to do cross-checks to mitigate the accuracy risk
  • Paint the bigger picture. When people perform under pressure, they tend to loose the big picture. Although you want them to be in the zone for optimal performance, they need to be made aware of what is happening around them. They need to know what is coming up next, and how they impact that with their current output or lack of output
  • Facilitate daily scrum meetings to set focus, priority and urgency. When the going gets tough, the though gets going. You cannot be early enough to start with daily scrum meetings. I am using the word ‘scrum’ to refer to a daily stand-up meeting at the team level, where each and everyone is present and provides input on the schedule and status. The project manager and solution architects are on point to resolve issues on the spot and to keep the work flowing.
  • Open up your toolkit and be creative. When that deadline is looming and smiling in your face, you want to do a step back as project manager and assess, reflect and adjust. It is the only way, to let your creative mind go and provide new and better mechanisms to get the finish line with the best output possible. The worse thing you can do is to get hooked into the pressurized momentum as well. If that happens, it could be game over

Every project gets under pressure. If it hasn’t, it probably wasn’t a real project, meaning there was tons of time to deliver. Project managers need to be aware of this and understand that under pressure everything becomes fluid. When that happens it is time to roll up the sleeves and apply specific techniques to bring the game home with the right level of quality. Most of these techniques centre around better and more timely communication, detailed work schedules, ad-hoc actions to keep things moving forward, and creativity.

Bas de Baat

The 5 A’s on the program manager’s report card

big-red-a-report-cardGreatness begins beyond your comfort zone – Robin Sharma

One of my kids came home with a report card the other day. I saw it laying on the stairs when I was on my way to go to bed. I picked it up and stared at it for awhile. The result were great and made me feel proud. Once I was beyond the point of happiness, I looked at the scoring mechanism and concluded that through the years it has not changed much. The other thought that came to mind was how would a report card of a program manager look like.

The easiest and most obvious way is to measure a program manager’s performance on traditional metrics like scope, schedule and budget. Still in most of the job profiles today you read something like: “must deliver the planned scope of work on time and on budget”. I wonder if that still makes sense in a world where leaders need to rely more on soft skills to make things happen. The capability to apply the technical aspects of program management must be there, no doubt, but the ultimate success is a result of other qualifications.

What A’s must a program manager score? I think the following five apply:

Accountability – Many years ago when I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers they communicated being visionary, bold, open and accountable as core values of their professionals. I like them all and probably accountability the most. It determines whether you are a winner or not. Strong program managers put their teeth in an initiative they believe in and deliver no matter what

Adversity – Program managers show their true colors at times of adversity. With strong headwinds blowing, accomplished program managers have alternative strategies in their back-pocket. With their helicopter view and ability to connect the dots, they are best positioned to provide sound recommendations to adjust, correct and overall stay the course.

Adaptability – It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, but a top-notch program manager must have a high degree of flexibility. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment the key levers of any program are under pressure all the time. It is critical to have some sort of ‘sense and response’ system that helps you manoeuvre through the landscape

Automaticity – The thought behind this measure is that the program manager maintains a set of habits to are being applied by default without putting to much thought into it. For experienced program managers it is imperative that they provide strong facilitation, communication and problem-solving skills instantly. These are a few examples of core skills

Ambiguity – In one of my other posts, I wrote that ambiguity is the silent killer of any initiative. A high level of ambiguity can be an indication that the level of trust amongst the business partners who participate in the program, is not where it needs to be in order to deliver on time, scope and budget. An experienced program manager is on top of this and avoids the program to enter into a ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ situation

Bas de Baat