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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sense, Sensibility and Perception: There is no accounting for Taste

[Also available as a podcast]

A colleague of mine has no taste. None at all - either he lost it in early childhood or he never had it, he can't exactly remember. 

I am not being mean about his clothing or sense of style - I am being quite literal. His taste buds do not work at all. When he eats, there is only texture, no flavor. "Food is simply fuel" as he says it - there is no particular enjoyment to any particular food, just the satisfaction of no longer being hungry.

"How horrible," I thought, "to never be able to taste chocolate, fruit or delicious, exotic foods". 

And then a few years ago, as a side effect of some bug going around, I completely lost my sense of taste as well. Usually your sense of taste is diminished when you have a cold, as smell is a big part of the sensation. But it wasn't that - my taste buds actually stopped working completely - and the smell part of it went too. Nothing but texture was left - not even spicy food registered, other than some watering eyes.

Fortunately it only lasted around 4 weeks, but I can tell you I was worried it might not come back. Life without the taste of good food...and chocolate! Of course, I could imagine it very well as I was experiencing it first-hand, but I did not like the prospect of life without tasting. While I suffered the effects, food was definitely just fuel. No enjoyment at all.

I was thinking a lot about my colleague during that time - wondering if he missed it, or simply did not know what he was missing. 

Other friends or colleagues are color-blind, some red/green, some other mixes, and a rare few have strictly black and white vision. A few others are partially or entirely blind, either through accidents, disease or blind since birth. Countless others wear glasses, as I did until laser surgery - when I had reached the point where things were still a bit blurry at the "best" setting on the optician's fancy machine.

Some other friends and family are deaf, either mostly or partly - and my kids certainly have selective hearing when there are jobs to do around the house!

I have not come across anyone personally who has a diminished sense of touch, but I understand that there are many people with this condition as well.

When we are dealing with people, we never know exactly how they each experience the world - what their perspectives are - and not just with the physical senses. 

One thing that is undeniable, though, is that your perception of the world around you affects how you respond in any given situation - and it also affects your approach to projects and challenges.

Sense & Perception

In projects, we are not just limited to working with differences in people's physical senses (sight, sound, taste, touch). People each approach the world with different perceptions and attitudes, which are based on a combination of their physical sensations, experience, background, education, expectations, language, culture - and which side of the table you are sitting on. 

I have been to a number of countries where the behaviors were different than "home" - and unprepared, this could (and sometimes did) lead to embarrassing or even potentially dangerous situations. In India, for example, I let a snake charmer put a cobra across my shoulders for a photo after I asked him if the snake had been de-venomed, as I was quite nervous and risk-averse. He nodded. I later found out that nodding meant "No" and wobbling your head sideways meant "Yes". Oops! 

Words in one language may sound identical to words in another language - and have a completely different (sometimes offensive) meaning. So be careful when you are interacting with people with different primary languages, and try to learn their language - or at least enough to avoid anything that might be offensive. 

However, even if you share the same primary language, the same words can have different meanings from one company to the next - don't just assume that they understand the jargon you are using.

The key thing to remember is that practically no-one will experience things in exactly the same way you do - and therefore they will have a different experience and understanding of the same event. Therefore, you should always be looking to achieve understanding - to verify that you understand what they are saying - and they understand what you are saying.

Sounds simple when you say it fast - but of course it is trickier than that.

Tip: "You got that, right?" does not count as verifying understanding. If they nod and smile, it might just mean they didn't understand your language at all and they think you are paying for lunch.

Depending on the situation, you may need to use a variety of approaches, including:
  • Paraphrase what you heard and repeat it back to them in a simpler way, or without jargon.
  • Ask more questions around the topic, especially if you are not entirely clear about it yourself.
  • Draw pictures and diagrams to check if your concepts agree - even if the words, phrases or language seem to be an obstacle.
  • It is important to simplify - and not over-complicate.
  •  and so on. You may need to be quite creative depending on the audience.
Another way to put it is that you need to deal with different people in different ways, and learning how to do that is a key leadership skill. The more you know about them, the easier it is - if you meet someone for the first time, being a good observer of people definitely helps.

When you have worked with someone for a long time, you get to know each other very well, including a fair appreciation of how they perceive the world around them and how they might respond in a given situation. This helps you to communicate more effectively and efficiently - and interact without too much friction. When you have meet someone new, it can take time (a little or a lot) to get to a common ground.


"It just makes sense! Why don't they get it?"

What you think and what they think from observing the same thing can be completely different based on your perception and expectations.

For most of my career, I have been on the "vendor" side of the table - but recently, I have been able to experience the end-customer side, as a project manager working with various vendor/suppliers. For some, it might be tempting to play power games, but really - that would not be professional (or nice) - and besides if you are on a short term contract you will be back on the other side of the table soon enough (and possibly working for that vendor!)

After all, you are both there to solve some problem, deliver a successful project outcome and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

What I have found in my career so far is that there are several types of vendors, and several types of customers - and each have distinctly different perspectives. While the reality is somewhere in the middle, here are the extremes:

  • Do-the-least-you-can vendor: This vendor will do the bare minimum to deliver, cut costs wherever possible, and will conform to documented scope but not look at the bigger picture. This vendor may nickle-and-dime the customer over minor change requests, and lose focus on how the product/result will be used. You don't want this one to build the bridge you drive over every morning.
  • Let's-get-it-done-right vendor: This vendor actively looks out for the interests of the customer, taking those extra steps and asking more questions so they understand the big picture as well as the details. This vendor works to ensure the requirements are well defined, and they are usually in it for the long haul with a lasting relationship with the customer. This vendor also needs to be careful to not over-deliver and overrun costs, but they may accept some overages as "relationship investment", if it takes a bit extra to make sure things are done right.
  • Give-me-everything-I-want-but-cheap customer: This customer often has unrealistic demands and pushes the vendor for everything they can squeeze out of them, as cheaply as possible. They can be quite challenging to work with, and getting acceptance sign off is usually delayed by "you need to do this one more thing first". They don't tend to get a good result, and have few long-term relationships with vendors, unless they are locked into a long-term support contract (and believe me, the vendor is probably counting the days!).
  • Let's-work-together-to-do-it-right customer: This customer has a realistic view of the world and understands there are different types of vendors. They will also generally know their own business well and their own requirements - and are generally reasonable in working together with the vendor to define the scope and project schedule. They will usually work closely with the vendor during the project, but it is likely more a collaborative relationship than strictly oversight. This customer may have been burned by "Do-the-least-you-can" vendors in the past, so they may be pragmatic about contractual details and risk management - including contractual penalties. However, if you are a "Let's-get-it-done-right" vendor and perform well, you are likely to form a long lasting relationship, do more business - and potentially have less punitive contracts as trust is built with the vendor.
Although no person or company is perfect, those that work to "do a good job right" tend to be more successful in the long run - they build loyalty with their staff and their customers. If you match this type of company with a "Let's-work-together" customer, you generally get a better outcome as you both work together well towards the common goal. An additional benefit is that if you do run into the inevitable bumps in the road, the customer is more likely to say "let's sit down and talk about it" rather than "I'll see you in court!"

Although I have been on the vendor side most of my career, I can say that I have generally worked for let's-get-it-done-right vendor companies. I have spent quite a few years in several companies like this, and the reason that I stayed so long is that my values aligned strongly with theirs - to do a good job, and do it right. I have always worked to see the bigger picture for both sides - what works for US (collectively), and what solves the problem? I usually found myself straddling the fence and being the customer advocate - looking both at what was best for the company, and what was best for the customer. 

Do you know where I put the most weight? On the customer. If we do a good job meeting their needs (reasonably, within scope and budget), we all win!


When working with customers, stakeholders and your project team, one of the most valuable skills that you have as a Project Manager is to be able to empathize - to learn to understand where the other person (or vendor, or customer) is coming from, and how things look from their side of the conversation. If you can truly appreciate things from their perspective, it can help smooth out relationships and defuse some potentially nasty situations before they slide off the rails. 

Of course, we cannot read minds, but we can become good observers of people. And there is one more thing that will make you smarter and become a better Project Manager and leader of people.

Ask questions. 

Not silly ones, leading ones or left-field ones, but sincere questions that show you really want to learn what they have to say. The better listener you are (and this involves asking questions - not just sitting in silence), the wiser you will appear - and eventually become.

The wisest person in the room did not come into it "knowing everything" - they came in as an open-minded, empty vessel and asked plenty of good questions to those who did.

Incidentally, the most important question you can ask in a situation where you are trying to come to an agreement is "did I understand you correctly?" after paraphrasing what you think they said.

Good luck with your projects, and keep asking questions, with your mind, eyes, ears and all your other senses wide open.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year, New Project - Don't Forget the PARTY!

[Also available as a podcast]

Happy New Year - and welcome to your new project! 

The start of the calendar year often marks the start of new projects; the old year is done, the new year is fresh and full of potential. Everyone is rested from the break and raring to go...ok, perhaps recovering is the right word. However, it is still a great time of year to kick off new projects, with most people full of energy and optimism. Who knows - your New Year Resolution might even have been about your project. (Ya, right!)

Many people finished up the calendar year with a lot of social activities and parties; the closer you got to the end of the year it seems the less work was done, or at least it was harder to get work done. I know exactly how tough it was - I was in the first month of ramping up on a new project, looking for information, while everyone else was winding down from the year and starting to disappear on holiday.

Now it is a new year, people are returning from holiday, refreshed or recovering, in any case coming back to work to hit the ground running (or at least at a moderate walking pace).

So what do we need to do to get our new projects off on the right foot, to help make sure they are successful?

Quite simple, really. What we need is...a Project PARTY.

The Project PARTY

What, another party to distract the team? We just had a series of those in December - what are you talking about? We need to get everyone focused and minds back on the job!

Yes, this is true. Although we do need a fair dose of social interaction to reconnect relationships after the break, I am not talking about having another "party". What we need to to start off your project successfully is contained in the acronym P.A.R.T.Y.

Assemble the Team
Review Requirements
Team Development
Youthful spirit

Let's have a look at each of these key points:


As the Project Manager, the most important thing you can do at the beginning of every project is to get your head on straight and figure out what needs to be done. You may have already had a chance to read the Project Charter, High Level Requirements, Contract and other related documents. Or perhaps this is the first day you have them dumped on your desk (or email inbox). 

(We will assume that the project has been approved to start already and has a Project Charter or similar authority document in place - so most of the Initiation phase is complete).

Even if you read over every document twice before the break, chances are that all those parties and the time away let a lot of those details slip out of your head. So whether you have read the project documents before the break or you have them now for the very first time, it is important for you to read them over a few more times to let it all sink in.

It is also time to look over your trusty toolkit of Project Management tools and metrics, to decide what is going to be needed and work best for this new project. Just as every project is unique, the specific tools and templates you use on this project may be different than your last one. Perhaps they will be the same set of tools with little or no tweaks or changes, but it is important to think about what you actually need, rather than starting the project on auto-pilot. You might need new tools/templates, or changes to the ones you used last time based on lessons learned. 

Next, you need to review the stakeholder list - who is your Project Sponsor? Who is on the Project Control Board / Steering Committee / Change Control Board? If you don't know some of them yet, it is time to get introduced and spend a little time with them to let them know who you are, and to discuss their understanding and expectations of the project and its goals. For those you already know, go and spend a bit of time with them, asking the same types of project questions, after the chatty bits about their holiday and how the kids liked their presents.

Another consideration for you as the Project Manager is that in order to achieve project success, you will need to be the leader that your team needs you to be (which will change over time as the project progresses). I suggest you read Ten Attributes of an Effective Leader and the other leadership articles as you prepare for the next step.

Head full and spinning with words, charts & leadership advice, and hand sore from all the stakeholder handshakes? I guess it is time for the next stage.


Depending on your project, some of the team members may have been pre-selected, particularly if they are named in an RFP response, or they were involved in the Project Initiation process. Quite likely these pre-selected people will be more senior staff who will be Team Leads on your project. 

In selecting members for your team, you will need to leverage the influence of your project sponsor, and the expertise of your Team Leads. Unless you have been around the company for a long time, it is unlikely that you will know everyone and their skills and aptitudes. So use the Team Leads - review the high level project documents with them and listen to their recommendations on who should be on the project team, combined with the people that you already know would be ideal for particular roles. 

When you have the candidate list of people that you want for your project (and some alternates), it's time to try to secure those people for your project. This can in some ways be the toughest part of your project - particularly if the people you want are experts and in high demand from other groups and projects. They may only be available for a portion of your project, or on a part-time basis. This is where you can use the leverage of your Sponsor to try to secure the best resources for you, negotiating with the department managers in your matrix organization. If your project is important enough, with a high profile and strategic company direction, you will likely have more luck in obtaining the key staff you want, even if they are pulled from other projects. (Oh, no, poaching!) Well, technically that is poaching, but in the strategic interests of the company the sponsor may determine with the managers that it may be the right thing to do for the company to juggle resources around. 

If you are on the other end of the scale, you might find that your first, second and third choices are not available to you, and you are having to train up Bob from the Mail room. Don't knock Bob though - this may be the break he needs to show how skilled and dedicated he is - you never know.

Just make sure to use your sponsor's (and your own) influence to try to get you the best resources you can - that is part of their job as the sponsor.

When you have the team identified, it's time to schedule a meeting to get everyone together. But not just any meeting - you need to have the Project Kickoff

(For a detailed discussion of what should go into your project kickoff, read Project Planning 1.0 - The Importance of the Project Kickoff).


During the Project Kickoff, you will do many things with the team in going over the landscape of the new project, who is there to do what, the overall objectives etc. You will also have some form of requirements (usually high level) that describes the project scope.

Review these requirements with the team (send them a copy well before the meeting and ask them to read them in advance). These are of course not the final requirements - you will define more detailed requirements as you get further into the project. It is important to make sure that everyone is heading in the same direction though - and has a common understanding of what the project is about before they leave the kickoff meeting.

(See Developing Exceptional Requirements for more details about creating detailed requirements from high level ones during the Project Planning and Execution phases).


Now that you have the team together and you have done the ice-breaker and introductions in the project kickoff, you need to grow them from a group of individuals into a team (hopefully a high-performing one, but one step at a time). You need to structure some activities (social and work-wise) to build on your initial efforts in developing the team. If you have a large team, this may be more successful in small groups -i.e. you working with the team leads and the sponsor, and you and each team lead working with their groups (and the sponsor if appropriate for the activity).

The key thing here is to develop a sense of team success and camaraderie early on - carve out some initial deliverables that they can work on together over a short period, with a high probability of success (but not too easy, either). Make it an achievable challenge. Scheduling a group coffee (or tea) once a week is another great idea to help the team develop and get to know each other.

Although they can be fun, climbing walls and crossing moats may not give you the best outcomes for team development - you need them to work together on project deliverables after all, and some may be intimidated by physical challenges and set a poor mood. If those out-of-office challenge activities work for you, great - but if they might work against your particular team, then you may want to reconsider using them.

You may also find these articles helpful as you consider your team development strategies: 

Teams, People and Change: You Can't Push a String 
Leadership: On Developing Teams - Are you alone on the Ice?
From the Playground to the Olympics: What NOT to do in Team Development


Energy is a vital element as you start your projects. There will be many times through your project where you are worn down and wonder why you signed up to manage this %^@#$%^ project in the first place. Do whatever you can to keep your optimism and energy levels up - and remember that enthusiasm is contagious. Talk with your Mentor regularly - and especially when times get tough. They can help put your head back on straight and improve your mood.

If you can start off the project with enthusiasm around your team, it will help set the overall mood of the project and project team. (Though I don't recommend dancing on tables). Prudent optimism and enthusiasm will help sustain your project performance.

Conversely, negativity is even more contagious, so avoid it at all costs, or your project will sputter and fail - as your team becomes dispirited and start looking for the nearest exit.

So smile, be authentic and optimistic - with an enthusiastic, youthful spirit.


As we all know, there is a lot more to be done as you deliver your project. We have not covered all aspects of managing your project in this article. However, getting your project started off on the right foot is a key factor for project success. If people start off in different directions and are confused about the scope and overall project objectives, you will be doing a lot of chasing and correcting expectations rather than delivering. It is better to get that sorted out from the beginning, and reinforce/remind the team as you go along. 

If you would like to read some more Project advice, I suggest you look through my other PM articles, or  if you would like a more comprehensive reference, you can always buy my book (Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management) in kindle or paperback format (make sure to use the current discount code!).

Good luck with your projects, and I wish you all success for the coming year!