Inside UBC Sauder Executive Education

3 Ideas to keep projects on track

Leading project management educator Denise Holleran-Boswell

Program Leader in the Professional Project Management Certificate Program at UBC Sauder, Denise Holleran-Boswell provides top tips for project managers and what it takes to run successful projects every time.

What are the top three things to keep projects on track?

Keep in mind every project has its own enterprise environmental factors and hence there are no 3 silver bullets. It would depend on those factors. However, if I have to pick 3 at a minimum I would:

  • Clearly understand the context of the project up front rather than project content i.e. who and why was the project initiated, a problem to solve or an idea someone has, and what drives the project i.e. the business benefits to be achieved, and what are the unique project components. Project content comes next, making sure everyone is in agreement and understands what the project scope is, scope measurement criteria for success, and the process to deliver such ensuring client acceptance.
  • Focus on managing the stakeholders, risks and organizational change, and keeping the stakeholders engaged throughout the project life cycle. It is paramount to success to have the stakeholders fully engaged, involved in issue resolution, risk mitigation and preparing the organization for the internal and/or external change from the results of the project, amongst their normal approval activities.
  • Last, but not least, when you think there is something wrong, even if it’s just a gut feeling, take corrective action as soon as possible.

Risk is always a factor in every project. What is the most important thing to remember to mitigate threats and capitalize on opportunities?

I emphasize one needs to take a very proactive approach, not reactive! Project managers need to understand that the predominant risks are where the unique components of the project exist. All projects have a unique component; the question is how unique is it? The uniqueness is where the risk exists, and you want to really figure that out up front. It not only impacts risks, but also the amount of organizational change and progressive elaboration the project will experience over the project life cycle.

What key strategies do you teach Project Managers to keep their teams motivated and on task?

Right away, they need to understand and accept the challenges of the environment in which they are working. How is that going to impact your ability to motivate your team? What are the factors that can either influence or hinder success? Most projects are stressful, dealing with a lack of resources and people who sometimes don’t have a lot of experience. In this case, we need to figure out what their core competencies are, play to these strengths; as well as their individual preferences. They may not have the experience, but if they lean towards certain tasks it’s ultimately worth it to invest in training them in those areas they prefer. In addition always have simple reward structures, preferably ‘win-win’ reward structures, these help to focus teams on positive behaviours.

How do you ensure participants are being equipped with strategies they can put to work the day they get back to the office?

Because we incorporate a lot of experiential learning and simulated exercises; by the time participants graduate, they’ve done a little bit of everything, including lots of problem solving in a project environment. Again, they are learning by doing. In some instances, they’re actually using their existing work projects, so it helps them jumpstart and lay the foundations for successful project completion once they return to work.

We also hold open discussions where we encourage participants to talk about any issues they’re having with a particular project. Then as practitioner’s we can give them immediate feedback based on our own experience.

We also utilize project challenges and jeopardy!-style quizzes on a daily basis to reinforce key learnings. This allows participants to refresh their minds on what we covered that day in a fun and interactive way.

What is the most significant thing you've noticed about how your courses transform participants' abilities?

I receive lots of email from graduates telling me how they are putting the principles we teach them in a course – like assessing project risk and stakeholders – into play at work and the positive progress and successful project delivery they’re experiencing. I also see a significant leap in confidence that participants gain during the course, for example their individual ‘AH-AH’ moments. They are confident to go back into their workplace and be in charge or participate on a project knowing they can keep it on budget, on time, within scope, and have satisfied stakeholders, enabling them to achieve the business benefits.

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