Everybody these days is a project manager. So what should a career project manager focus on? Learn from Elizabeth Harrin – founder of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

 Elizabeth Harrin is Director of The Otobos Group, a project communications consultancy. She has a decade of experience in leading IT and process improvement projects in financial services and healthcare. She also is experienced in managing business change. Elizabeth is the author of three books and blogs at www.GirlsGuideToPM.com for which she won the Computer Weekly IT Professional Blogger of the Year award in 2011. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @pm4girls.

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Welcome project managers and program managers. This is Samir Penkar from The Future of Project Management and today we have with us Elizabeth Harrin and she is from London, United Kingdom, and she’s here to talk to us about project management and she is active in the project management space. She is the Director and founder of The Otobos Group and we’ll talk about that. She also writes a great blog called- A Girls’s Guide to Project Management and a lot of good writing, great writing. Her blog is great so let’s get right into it and talk to Elizabeth about project and program management. So Elizabeth, thank you first of all for doing this and we really appreciate it.

 That’s all right. Thank you for having me on your podcast.

 Thank you. So for the benefit of the audience, can you describe by telling us the various activities you are involved in, from the blogging and writing and consulting that you do.

 Well I do mainly writing. I blog, like you just said at A Girl’s Guide to Project Management which is girlsguidetopm.com and that’s my main outlet for writing. I also write books. I’m on my third book at the moment and that’s the newest one which will be out later this year, and that’s called Customer Centric Project Management. It’ll be published by Gower. It’s a new take on Post Implementation Reviews so it’s been really interesting writing it, actually.

 It’s the first time I’ve co-written a book with anybody. So that’s been a new experience for me as well. It focuses on reframing stakeholders as customers and working with them to get continuous feedback for the lifecycle of the project.

 What else am I doing? I’m also in discussions with the publisher of my first book, Project Management in the Real World if we can do a second edition, but I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen with that. And I’m doing a chapter for Gower’s Handbook of People and Project Management about social media. So I seem to have quite a lot of writing on the go at the moment. My own projects.

 I write as well for some corporate clients. That’s my company. So I do things like document templates, website copy, case studies, white papers, eBooks, stuff like that for other people.

 Okay, great, great. And you are the founder of this Otobos Group and I’ll let you describe what the Otobos Group is, but the question I have is this. If you could describe to our audience what exactly do you do with the Otobos Group and I’m interested in your focus is on project communications, so if I’m a project manager and if you come in and help us improve our project communications, what would that look like, if you could describe that for us?

 Okay. Well, Otobos stands for on time, on budget, on scope and so we’re a project communications consultancy and we were set up to help other people tell the story of their projects more effectively. But at the moment we mainly offer services to companies so everybody from sole traders to large corporations. If you are an individual project manager at the moment the tools I’ve got to help you are my blog, I’ve got an online course about social media and that’s free and it teaches you how to use social media on your projects. It’s quite high level but it gives you an idea of what sort of social media tools you can use for communication and collaboration on your projects.

 From time to time I do some mentoring, so I would be able to spend time with individual people and talk to them about their communication style and what they are doing on their projects and that kind of thing. I think mainly what we do at the company is explain the messages about your projects to other people, so things like press releases, templates for PMOs, I’ve also done things like exercises to use on training courses either in house or for trainers to use. Anything that’s written down mainly, we can do.

 Later this year I hope to launch an online course aimed at helping individual project managers improve their writing skills, specifically around formal communications in documents. Because I think there’s an awful lot to say about that and things you can do and obviously that way I can reach a wider group of people than just going companies or meeting individual project managers for mentoring. Does that answer the question?

 Yes. Yes it does. While you were talking about this you mentioned that you help the companies or the project managers tell a better story of the project.

 Yes.

 A large part of what project managers do is communication and where do you think the project managers fall short, I guess, or need a lot of improvement in this maybe story telling or communication part of the project?

 I don’t think we do enough to celebrate success. I think a lot of our communication is around something’s gone badly….

 Right.

 a risk report or, it’s boring.                            

You don’t consider who the person is who’s going to read it and produce pages of stakeholder reports and nobody reads them because they are dull. So there is that side of things.

 I also think that even simple things like poor grammar. The amount of emails I read or get sent that have poor grammar, bad spelling, poor punctuation, all those things. It makes you look unprofessional. So, if you want to come across as the most professional project manager you can be, you should pay attention to all that stuff as well. Sometimes that’s why it’s good to have, I’m not suggesting I would write your monthly reports to your stakeholders on your behalf, but sometimes that’s why people who are specialists in project management or project management companies don’t have those kinds of skills in house and that’s what I can do.

 For individual project managers, if you polish the pieces of paper, polish the emails, polish the documents before they get sent out to people, you get taken a lot more seriously and your projects will, I think, be more respected, because you are doing everything as professionally as you can.

 I see that in my projects too and people are busy writing emails and they don’t pay attention to grammar. They don’t pay attention to the English language at all. They just ignore it [laughs] and sometimes it does help to have a nice drafted email in proper full sentences and not cryptic [laughs].

 Exactly. And I think, if you remember who you are writing for, it helps. Because some people, you have to communicate at different levels and if you are talking to an IT developer, they might want lots of detail, but if you’re talking to your project sponsor they probably want a summary. So knowing how to change what you’re writing to suit the person who’s reading things is another really important point.

 The other aspect you touched upon is we don’t stress more on the successes, every project report is full of risks and issues and at least a major chunk of it [laughs].

 Yes. You need to highlight those things to people, but you should also spend some time at least talking about all the stuff that has gone really well. Because we need to get credit for that and it helps the team morale.

 Yes, I know, I know and I hope people do that more and more. You write a great blog on this Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

 Thank you.

 Where did that idea come from?

 Well, it began back in 2006 when I thought there weren’t enough women writing and speaking about project management, although in my professional life, I worked with plenty of women and I knew that there were large numbers of women working in project management. Just no one out there visible.

 If you flicked through the trade press, or went to conferences back in 2006, that meant reading and listening to what men had to say about project management and, there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s fine, they were, they’re still very good at project management but there wasn’t enough of a female influence there that I write about, I don’t know, I’ve just written an article about street parties for next week. But there’s a different take on things about how to be a female project manager. I don’t know, things like traveling to meetings wearing your trainers and putting your high heels in your bag, things that you probably don’t even think about.

 That’s how it was back then and even just a few years on, things are better. Conference organizers tell me now that they go to lengths to attract female speakers and editors have more balanced editorial panels, there are more women contributing articles to the trade press. But people shouldn’t have to go to special efforts to get women to contribute to these forums. I think if women want to have a more active role in promoting project management as a 21st century job, we should be getting out there and doing it.

 I can’t, obviously, speak for all female project managers…

 Right.

 it’s something, that was just the angle that I chose to take at the time. So I try to cover…

 Do you feel there are any unique challenges in being a female project manager?

 Not really. I think men and women approach project management, if you are doing it right, in a very similar way. But there’s a lot of stereotypes about what women do better and what men do better. But I think that broadly the skills you need to be a good project manager are exhibited by men and women that I’ve worked with. So I don’t think there’s anything special about being a female project manager. I think, like I say, the challenges are more around things like equal pay, maternity leave. Especially for young female project managers, being taken seriously in the work place when you’re working with older men. Things like that, which are not necessarily about project management specifically…

 Right.

 … it’s more about working women.

 Right, right. You are based in the U.K. and a lot of the consulting or the speaking that you do has been in the U.K. I assume?

 I do travel occasionally but yes.

 How do you describe the U.K. project management scene in terms of maybe the challenges maybe the opportunities, the growth or the potential or any of those, sort of, lines?

 Well, historically we’ve been pretty rubbish at managing projects and there’s always something in the paper about big civil service government led public sector projects failing miserably. But I think that we all have turned a corner and things are getting better and I think the Olympics have really helped with, getting the Olympics here in a couple of months and that’s really helped showcase the U.K.’s ability to manage projects of this size and scale.

 Because the buildings, the lease and construction program all completed on time, completed on budget, the buildings are fit for purpose. They have been built with sustainability and green engineering in mind and with a legacy in mind so they are buildings that can be converted in to something later. So I think, finally, we are starting to see big construction projects and with government involvement that actually have been a success and that haven’t spent millions of pounds extra. So that’s good.

 We’ve also got a unique thing over here that perhaps other countries don’t have, which is our Association for Project Management is going on a journey to try to get chartered status for project managers and then chartered status is, effectively, over here we have chartered engineers, chartered surveyors, people who have a truly professional job, and that job has been defined and granted a Royal Charter. So that’s what APM is trying to get for project managers.

 I think it’s a good thing that they are trying to go for that but I think that there are too many qualifications in the U.K. Chartered status isn’t going to help that, in fact it’s probably going to make it worse. But anything that helps clarify the position for employers has to be good, because we’ve got lots of different professional bodies, lots of different qualifications and it can be quite difficult for employers to know who’s a good project manager and who’s not, based on the paperwork that they’ve got to their name.

 Yeah, that is a really big challenge actually. Someone who’s in a hiring position is really in a difficult spot to identify the right candidate.

 Yes. I think in countries where you’ve got one predominate professional body it becomes much easier because you just hire someone who’s got that credential. But, over here we’ve got a number of active groups but again it just makes it harder for employers to know what they want.

 Right, right. Now going one level up beyond U.K. and just talking about project management in general. Where do you think the project management discipline or field is headed for, in the future?

 Well I’ve definitely seen the commoditization of project management. It’s becoming much more of a core skill, especially in some of the software providers. So you’ve got people like Microsoft Projects and Primavera aiming at professional serious project managers but there is a whole suite of tools now, aimed at almost accidental project managers or people managing much smaller projects and they’re all collaborative tools you can access on your iPad.

 I think the role of the career project manager will change, because everybody’s a project manager now. The career project manager will be managing larger projects, more complex projects, that kind of massive business transformation, business change type work and our skills will be in managing multiple stakeholder groups, managing organizational politics.

 I think projects are becoming more complex and more messy and the, sort of, professional in inverted commas will step in with some of that advanced project leadership skills, advanced risk management skills. But anything that just needs a task list with a few milestones and some document templates and some basic team management skills, pretty much anyone can do now, and should be able to do. It’s not like project management is rocket science. If you managed to organization a children’s birthday party or a wedding or …

 … they are all projects aren’t they?

 Yeah, that is true.

 It’s not difficult to be a project manager when the projects are basically quite straightforward. So I think we will see more and more being classified as projects but project managers will be taking on the bigger, more complicated things. That’s quite good.

 What else do I think? Well, project management, I think part of the reason that over here it’s difficult to know how to hire a project manager is because there’s lots of different interpretations of the job description and there’s jobs that I see advertised with salaries of £20,000 up to £80,000 and more and you know, that can’t possibly be the same job with the same responsibilities.

 It’s not really clear, so who knows? I think this comes back to these industry bodies and what they are doing and who sets the standards for what project management means. I think we could really do with somebody or a group of people working together to say this is what our official, over-arching, definitive definition of what a project manager does.

 I know I talked about the U.K. having a number of different professional groups, there’s the U.K. Chapter of PMI which is relatively active, we’ve got the Association for Project Management which is affiliated to the IPMA and we’ve also got the PRINCE2 which isn’t a body, it’s not a professional group, it’s just an exam that you take, but that is the official government recognized or the government preferred credential that is administered by the Cabinet Office. So those are the three different groups if you like. They’ve all got different requirements and benefits, but it does make it difficult for employers because you’ve also got all the academic qualifications.

 You could get a master’s degree, or you can get an MBA with a focus in project management. I think it’s difficult for employers but it’s also difficult for individuals. I mean how do you know what you should be taking, qualification wise?

 I think the future of project management, I hope, will see some kind of standardization or at least collaboration between different groups so that you can easily say. ‘I’ve got a Managing Successful Programs Certificate, that’s broadly equivalent to this, and that might be equivalent to membership of this, that and the other’. Then employers might find it easier and individuals might find it easier to work out what’s the best choice for them.

 I think it’s also a bit mean for employers to have to pay multiples of subscription fees. If you are a member of PMI and APM, that’s two sets of subscription fees to pay every year.

 I don’t have any answers. There’s no clear path to solving that kind of problem.

 [laughs] Right, right.

 They won’t stop producing certificate based courses because that’s how they make money. The qualifications are very good. It’s just that there’s a lot of them and it’s quite confusing.

 So, sorry, I don’t know the… that’s my vision of the future, and it’s probably going to get worse actually, rather than.. I would like to see it get better but I think as project management becomes more widespread, we will probably see more qualifications, more courses offered by training companies and universities so it could get worse before it gets better.

 In the U.S. the predominate body is PMI…

 Yes.

 …and I know I’d heard about they were trying to develop an ISO standard for project management but I don’t know where that is. 

 The last I heard, they had started because on the ISO website there is something that says ISO standard for project management in development. I’ll have to have a look at that and see how far along it’s got, because that could well be the thing that makes everything hang together. [laughs]

 Yeah. Yeah. You know, in your career, so far, who have been some of your role models?

 I was hoping you weren’t going to ask me that. [laughs]

 It’s going to be difficult. I never really had any. I mean, I respect a lot of industry professionals and I work with complete good people. I have worked with really good people in different jobs as well. People who’ve got traits I’d like to emulate but I can’t really say I’ve got any role models.

 I think I’d meet a lot of people as an author and a speaker and when you meet them, it takes away some of the ‘star-struckness’, not really a word but…

 [laughs] Yeah, I know what you think, yeah.

 Let me give you an example. The first time I met David Hillson who’s the ‘Risk Doctor’ I was completely star struck, I was like ‘Oh it’s David Hillson, that’s amazing.’ But I’ve met him a couple of times now and he’s just a really nice, normal guy. He’s very, very clever, written some great books but I think people lose their role model mystery maybe a little bit when you get to meet them.

 Yeah, I know. The same sort of exact thing happened to me. I’m a runner and I met a runner who’s very accomplished and he’s in a lot of books and Calloway and one of the trips here and somehow after one of the meetings, that fascination sort of vanished I could say [laughs]. But yeah, I mean he’s a great guy and he’s in a lot of books and he’s run so many marathons and but maybe that mystery went away. I don’t know. [laughs]

 You know what I mean, so that kind of thing. There are a couple of people I admire – well there’s lots of people I admire in the project management world. Patrick Mayfield’s one of them. He’s always so calm. He’s really forward thinking and he’s got some good ideas. I was also lucky enough to meet Greg Balestrero the former CEO of PMI and he was very good. Very level headed, he did a really good job at PMI in my opinion.

 I saw him facilitate a discussion once and the way he just controlled the discussion was masterful. He seemed to have really good skills in those… and yet really able to command a roomful of 3,000 people and also to have a really good one-to-one conversation.

 Great.

 There’s a lot of people with good bits of skills that I’d like to pick and choose from all the people that I know.

 Yeah.. and what are some of your other hobbies and interests?

 Well, I grow vegetables..

 Oh you do? Okay.

 I’ve got tomatoes and green peppers and rhubarb in the garden at the moment. I did have some lettuce but it’s all been eaten by the birds, so there won’t be any lettuce this year.

 What else do I do? I crochet, at the moment I’m doing a cover for my Kindle.

 Oh, wow, that’s a good idea.

 Just something to do with my hands while I’m watching TV really. It’s nice to do something creative isn’t it because we spend so much time at work. It’s nice to do something that’s not work.

 One last question, if you want to leave the audience with one last piece of advice, the audience who’s listening to this is project managers, program managers and mostly managers or program managers. So what would you leave them with?

 I would say that it is way too late to fix problems if you wait until your post implementation review. I think you should constantly review how things are going, all the way through the project with your stakeholders so that you can make changes to the project management processes as you go along and you can check that what you’re delivering for them is what they are expecting and also that how you’re delivering it is also how they are expecting you to behave and to act as well.

 You might still be delivering a great deliverable which is perfectly aligned with what they want, but if you are not communicating or if your team are rude and obnoxious, or whatever, then that means that some of the power of project management, the impact of it, is lost. I think it really is worth doing continual reviews with your customers instead of waiting until the end and asking how it was for them.

 And that’s a great way to leave the audience with. And the audience wants to look at your work, look at what you do, what is the best place to direct them?

 Well, you could go to my blog which is http://www.girlsguidetopm.com or you can go to my company website which is http://www.otobosgroup.com and I’m on Twitter and on Facebook so if you search for me by name I should pop up there, and you can follow me or friend me or interact on those sites.

 Great, great. Well thank you so much and we really appreciate your time.

 That’s all right.

 I’m sure the audience will get in touch with you. To the audience, if you have found value, if you have learned from Elizabeth, I would encourage you to drop her an email or go to her Facebook or Twitter and drop her a note and say thank you for sharing her time and her knowledge today.

 Thank you Elizabeth. Thank you so much.

 Thank you very much.

 For more such inspiring and actionable project ideas sign up for regular updates and receive a FREE copy of my eBook – NExt: a project manager’s journey to the next level.

– Samir Penkar

About Samir Penkar

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