PMTips: We have the pleasure of doing a second interview with project management expert Elizabeth Harrin. She is a project and program manager, award-winning writer and author of the famous and established blog A Girl's Guide to Project Management. With over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services, she is now the Director of Otobos Consultants Ltd., a consultancy that focuses on project management copywriting. She is the author of six books, among which Collaboration Tools for Project Managers, a book published by the Project Management Institute.
Elizabeth is a fellow of the Association for Project Management, and a member of PMI. She holds degrees from the University of York and Roehampton University. She is a regular speaker at conferences and events, which is one of the many ways she shares her expertise with others. In 2017 Elizabeth was named as one of the Top 10 Women in Project Management to Follow on Twitter, and in 2018 as one of ILX’s 30 Influential People in Project Management, which attests to the significance of her contributions to the world of project management.
Elizabeth, thank you for accepting to do an interview with PMTips.
Elizabeth Harrin: Thank you for having me, and thank you for that introduction. It’s always awkward when I hear people talk about me, but yes, thank you, it’s a lovely way to be introduced.
PMTips: Through your mentorship practice you have addressed many issues faced by people that have worked, are working or would like to work in the project management field. Why is support important to beginners and even experienced project managers when they have to deal with specific issues, especially for the first time?
Elizabeth Harrin: I think support is important when you're doing something new, because often the managers and senior leaders that you work with don't have the experience themselves. So if they are not project managers, they haven't managed a project or they haven't managed the type of project that you're doing, they can't help you. And often, in my experience, people work with colleagues who don't have time to sit and help them with a problem, or they choose not to tell their colleagues that they are struggling because they don't want to be seen as somebody who can't do the job. And I also think organizations aren't very good at capturing organizational knowledge, organizational lessons learned, and passing that on. So there's often not a corporate wiki of all the cool things that we've learnt or all the good information that we've uncovered over time. Things are passed on through chats with other project managers or more experienced project managers, or over coffee, and just because you hear a story and you think ‘Oh, I don't want to do it like that’ or ‘I do want to do it like that’, so I think the support and sharing your challenges with someone who's been there and done that is useful. And I think because some companies don't have that framework of people available to you with the experience within their company – that's how people start to look outside their companies to a PMI chapter, or to a mentor like me, or to colleagues in a different business unit who could perhaps help. So I think having support just gives you a framework, gives you confidence that you're doing the right thing.
PMTips: As part of your mentoring program you help project managers get to grips with virtual teams. What are the most common issues that arise when working with virtual teams, and what solutions do you offer those who sign up for your mentoring program?
Elizabeth Harrin: I think the common issues I see with people working with virtual teams are communication, trust – lack of trust, really, because they believe that if you can't see what the other person is doing, then they're probably not doing it right, or they're not doing anything at all – and managing expectations, and also not having the right tools to make it easy. So trying to run a virtual team where you don't have technology or online software, or even just the culture of typing things in, or you're not sharing a common language, so sharing text-based communication becomes harder. So I think those are probably problems that listeners will recognize from their own experiences with virtual teams.
And you also asked what solutions do I offer, and I think it would be lovely to say, you know, here's a checklist of five things you can do that will make everything perfect, but unfortunately there are no off-the-shelf solutions. So when I work with individuals or with groups, we tend to discuss issues together, either as a group or individually, and then we tailor the solution to what's going to work for their project. So it's a bit of a difficult question to answer in terms of what solution, but I think for comms issues we tend to do a lot on our stakeholder engagement and communications planning, and trying to make sure that messages stand out when someone is very busy and they're getting lots of communication from various different projects or various different business organization people. And it's important that as a project manager we make our communications easy to understand so our virtual team members can easily engage with what it is that we're sharing.
PMTips: What are the benefits for organizations that sign their employees up for group mentoring programs? Do these programs improve productivity and team culture, and do they have a cost saving effect?
Elizabeth Harrin: That's a really interesting question. I personally haven't done any serious research into the effects that I've had as a mentor in terms of being able to help companies improve productivity and team culture. But I do have a lot of nice emails from people and anecdotal evidence that shows that yes, it does make a difference in terms of improving productivity through making it easier to know what to focus on. So I tend to help people understand what's important, where they should be spending their time, how best to split their energy – because we can't do everything all the time. There's so much work that we do as project managers. You need to think carefully about where you invest your energy. So that would help people be more productive. And I think the other big thing that often drops out of conversations is improved confidence. So the more confident you are at doing your job, the more likely it is that you will move a project forward, faster and with less overhead from management, which is time-saving for the higher levels of leadership.
So I'd like to think that mentoring has a positive impact on individuals. I think there's [an] investment that they make in themselves, or their company makes in themselves, that pays back through being able to turn up to work and not be so stressed, and being able to pass that level of confidence and knowledge and skill on to your team so that as a team you could be more productive. And the cost saving I suppose also comes from retention, because it's very expensive to hire someone, and if you hire someone – and I had an email just this morning, actually, from a new project manager asking for help, saying he was new in his job, he'd done project management for a month, and then in month two he was given another project and he still didn't really feel that he knew what he was doing, and to be noted some other things. And I thought if he's new in his job and he's only been with the company four weeks before they gave him another project, chances are if he doesn't make a success of this for himself in the next few weeks, he'll quit and go somewhere else, somewhere which might support him better, or he’ll leave project management and go into a different role. And that's a shame, because the company's hired him to do a job – he's perfectly capable of doing it – but they're not giving him the support that he needs, and they've paid to hire someone, they’ve paid to do that recruitment and onboarding for a resource that might not stay longer than six months. When you factor in making your team feel supported and confident and interested in wanting to stay with your company, then I think there's definitely a cost-saving.
PMTips: Stakeholder engagement can be quite important for the overall success of a project, and one of the courses you teach is the Stakeholder Management Masterclass. What would you say is the best way to make stakeholders engage more actively and provide their contribution to the successful delivery of a project?
Elizabeth Harrin: If only there was one way that would make every stakeholder engaged, but it's all very specific to the individual stakeholder. However, I think my big tip – if you wanted a tip to take away from our discussion today – it would be to be very clear about what that person needs to do and what it means to the project so they can see the purpose behind getting involved. I think often where stakeholders don't engage with the project is because they don't understand why it's important and why they should and they see it as just someone giving them another task to do and they'll get round to it eventually. But on a project eventually is not really part of our timeline. We would need it to be done by a certain date because then the work passes perhaps to another colleague, or it's for meeting a milestone or something like that. So unless we can explain why we're asking them to do the work and why the project needs them to commit to dates – and not just because I need you to, I'm talking about sharing the mission and the vision of the project – so making it meaningful for them and by explaining ‘If you can get involved with this as a company, we can increase our revenue or launch this new product before Christmas, or whatever the type of business goal that was written in your business case, the purpose behind doing the project.’ I think often we assume that people know that stuff because someone else in the organization has told them, and in my experience that is not often the case. We're talking to stakeholders who are perhaps hearing about this work for the very first time, and it might even be something critically strategic, important to the business, and it just hasn't really ever crossed their path before. So being specific about what we need them to do, why we need them to do it, and making our communications and engagements specific to them. So putting a little bit of effort into creating a to-do list that's specific to them, or making sure that they have a list of milestones that are specific to them instead of just saying ‘Here’s an extract of the project plan, pick out the bits that are relevant to you.’ And then following up and providing support and making sure that you're not assuming they're doing what they need to do without giving them the opportunity to check in and ask questions as we go. I think that would help really get stakeholders engaged more actively.
PMTips: Through the group mentoring Project Management Rebels you help project managers to more easily manage their projects by providing them with real-world tactics. Can project managers make a real difference on their projects by focusing on what real stories have to offer rather than on textbook theory?
Elizabeth Harrin: I think you need both. You need to know the theory and you need to know the rules of project management, because that gives you context and confidence, and you have an understanding of what is expected. But I think the thing that many project practitioners struggle with is then applying what they know to their own personal work environment. So you'll read in a textbook that you need to have a Communications Plan, and then you're looking at it thinking ‘But this is really not relevant to the type of work I do or to the people I work with,’ and they need confidence to be able to tailor the theory to suit their own environment. So that's the bit that we tend to focus on in Project Management Rebels that you just mentioned there, it’s the how do you do that translation, how do you take the theory and make it actually work in practice by sharing stories of what I've done, what other people in the group have done. Because when you've got 10 people on the phone, or on a web conference, everybody can share a story or an experience of where they've done a particular thing and made it relevant to their environment, and then we can all work it out together, and so what would be best for this individual who's in this situation. And also we look at different theories, different theories of leadership and management, because a lot of what we do as project managers is the soft skills and the interaction with people. And a lot of project management theory is very process-led, and when you try to make people do the processes, I think that's another part where we tend to come a bit unstuck, because the books read as if everybody will do every step in a process and it will all work perfectly and they'll all do exactly what you need. And in real life other people have their day jobs and their life outside of work and other things that they've got to worry about, so it's a juggle between turning that theory into something that works in a practical environment by tailoring, by choosing what is important, by having confidence in your professional judgment, and by sharing stories and experiences with other people who've been there and done that, to give you ideas about how you could ‘I can do those things’ and do that tailoring to your project.
PMTips: In your book Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, an e-book that addresses those who feel like they don’t really know what they are doing in the office. Can you briefly tell us what the most important solution strategies are for people to stop feeling like frauds at work?
Elizabeth Harrin: Yes, imposter syndrome is where you think that you don't really know what you're doing and one day someone will find out and think, you know, ‘How did we give you the job? How do you not know this stuff?’ But I think the biggest thing to remember is that we've all felt like that at some point, especially when you start a new role. So I've got three tips I can share about being confident and not feeling like you're a fraud in the project management team, and the first one is stop comparing yourself to other people, because you don't know what prior experience they've got, or actually what they're doing, and they might tell you something but be doing something different. So it's unhelpful to make comparisons between your career path and other people's, and then I think when we do compare ourselves we often end up comparing ourselves unfavorably and having strange expectations – everybody else is better than us – so just don’t, just don't even go there. The second tip is to separate feelings from facts, so you might feel stupid, but it doesn't mean you are stupid. Making sure that you can feel things and your feelings can be totally valid, but the feelings are not exactly the same as a true fact that is true today and will be true tomorrow, will be true 10 years in the future. So think about how you're feeling and accept those feelings, but put them in perspective. And then thirdly, stop aiming for perfection, because I think as project managers we often think that something has to be perfect before we release it into life, or before we share it with other people, and often it just needs to be good enough. So I think we spend a lot of time trying to polish things and make them wonderful, when actually our energy would be better spent somewhere else. So having – obviously there are some jobs where you have some tasks where you have to do it 100% quality and it has to be perfect, but lots of the things that we do as project managers, lots of the documents we produce are just used for internal purposes, and as long as they're good enough – that's they don't need to be 100% brilliant.
PMTips: You are the author of Networking: How to Do It, which is an e-book written for people who want to get the most out of networking, but are not sure how to begin. What are some practical tips for successful networking that you mention in this book? How can people best use the networking opportunities at conferences or events?
Elizabeth Harrin: I think the thing to think about with networking – and this comes up as well when I'm mentoring people – is we think of networking as something that's difficult to do, and a bit slimy perhaps, and you have to go and introduce yourself to strangers. But if you stop thinking about it as networking, and start thinking about it as building relationships with people, and start with the people in your own organization and having a good professional relationship with a wide range of people in your business or in your industry, then that's networking. That is a good place to start. And once you can do that you'll feel more confident about networking with people at conferences and events. So it's important for us as project managers, because projects are transitional. So you could have a great network about your project, your project stops, you close, you move on to a different thing, and you've lost that whole group of people that you'd worked with, perhaps for several years. So being able to maintain those relationships and have a wide network within the business, or within your organization, so that when you move on to another project your contacts aren't lost, because that will be helpful for perhaps your third and fourth project into the future when you go back and you're working with them again. So because of the transient nature of the type of tasks we do it's important to have that solid network within our workplaces. And it's really just about being helpful, staying in touch with internal stakeholders, passing on information where you think it might be relevant, thinking how could I help this person better do their job, catching up with people, not trying to walk past people at the water cooler because you don't know what to say, but stopping and saying hello and asking how they are, or things like that.
But you specifically mentioned about conferences there, so at a conference I tend to go with a list of people or companies that I would like to see or speak to, and I seek them out for a conversation. And then I try to keep notes of whom I've spoken to and when I spoke to them, sometimes what they look like, because if I've met them once I might not have the memory that I used to have when I was a bit younger. So I’ll write down things around what I know about this particular contact so that when I have another involvement or conversation with them in the future I've got a couple of things that I can drop into that conversation.
PMTips: Lack of communication between team members who work on the same project can be an obstacle which unless addressed in time, will affect the overall project success. How can project managers motivate the people on the team and create a positive work environment for all? What is the best way for project managers to improve the communication with their teams?
Elizabeth Harrin: Okay, there's quite a lot to unpick there. So I think the starting point would be to look at why the team isn't performing the way you would expect, because you talk there about creating a positive work environment and improving communication, which implies that you don't think that it's right at the moment. So if you can do a bit of analysis around what it is at the moment, what's happening at the moment, and what you would like to have happen, and then you could work out the gap that you've got to close, to get the team to a place where they are meeting your expectations around being in a positive work environment, having a great culture and all that kind of stuff. And normally there is some underlying reason that you will uncover if you ask people, and it will be not understanding each other's roles, so we don't know who we're supposed to talk to, we don't work with each other because we don't know what each other does or we don't have the tools, so we only talk to the people who sit close to us or that we have on our WhatsApp group, because we don't have the tools to talk to people further afield. And then you can address that. So whatever issues come up for you, there might be time zone, it could be something else, but whatever the issues are, there are flags, then you can start addressing those by looking at, perhaps, timing of meetings, or getting the right people involved, or getting people to talk about their roles, creating a roles and responsibilities document for example, all kinds of things like that could help improve. Getting people together face-to-face is also quite good, if you can do that, because it helps people to see each other in real life. I know that's not always possible with virtual teams. So there isn't one single way to improve the comms. It depends on the team, the location, the type of work you're doing and the tech that you've got available to support the comms. But I think if you ask people, and you ask them in a sensitive way, they are likely to tell you what they feel about their work environment, and you'll get some really good feedback from that. And if you can fix that, then maybe they will have confidence to share with you some of their other issues that they might not have wanted to bring up the first time, but because they can see that you have listened and acted on what they've suggested, you're then building up your own level of trust with this group and perhaps they will share some of their deeper fears and concerns with you at the next round of iteration if you're still not quite where you want to be with organizational culture.
PMTips: What would your advice to all project managers be? With the year-end approaching, which trends do you think they should focus on in 2020 in order to become even more successful project managers?
Elizabeth Harrin: That's an interesting question and there's quite a lot of stuff that's coming out in the reading that I'm doing at the moment, around different things that will be important for next year – a lot of technical stuff around big data and AI and all that, but we heard all that last year as well. For me I think the three things that people should focus on, which are not particularly related to 2020, but just we need to do more of as project managers, is stakeholder engagement in comparison to stakeholder management – so we need to start talking about engaging people and not managing behavior – and business acumen – which is around understanding the concept of value, how it means different things to different people – and managing expectations – understanding how your project fits into the bigger picture, so starting to think in more of a portfolio way and how what you do affects other projects.
And also, I read some interesting research from the Association for Project Management, the APM in the UK. They did some research earlier this year into the value of project management in the UK, and when part of that was asking people what they felt were the core skills of project managers, budgeting and financial management came out top. And I was really surprised that in a group of senior leaders, they would say that budgeting was so crucial a skill for project managers, because in my experience people often don't have very much responsibility for money on their projects, although I think they should. So if you're not someone who's had budget management experience or in controlling a budget, then that would certainly be a great career boost if you could get on to a project where you can be in charge of the financials as well.
PMTips: Elizabeth, thank you for joining us today, for providing advice, and for sharing your professional experiences with our readers and listeners.
Elizabeth Harrin: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me on the show.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska