"Dark Arts and Project Management": January Dinner Meeting Summary

by Mike Ososki, PMP

Joe Perzel has 17 years of corporate IT and project management experience in a diverse array of industries. He teaches PM soft skills vs. mechanics, and describes himself as a bit of “marketeer.” The phrase “dark arts” certainly grabs our attention. What Mr. Perzel really means is politics, marketing, communications, and managing projects from all the angles: up, down, and across. In our first PMI Atlanta Dunwoody Dinner of 2017, he abundantly shared views on this.

Joe also calls it the dark arts because it’s hard to learn and master, and no course will make you a master. It’s not embraced by everyone, and there are no rules, instructions, or one way to do it—but if you do it well, people won’t know you’re doing it, and it will deliver results.

Do you want to become a master PM magician? Some elements you need:
    1. Communicate well at all organizational levels.
    2. Adapt to different personality styles.
    3. Understand the business/application.
    4. Network well, internally and externally.
    5. Apply just enough process and tools.
    6. Strive to foresee the future.
    7. Drive toward goals, yet flex as needed.
    8. Be organized and disciplined (enough).
    9. Be a good leader and listener, with a thick skin.

Some simple ways to screw up a project:
    1. Change the technology, infrastructure, or materials.
    2. Muddle the vision, priorities, or objectives.
    3. Work with an unengaged sponsor.
    4. Change key resources frequently.
    5. Don’t manage change control.
    6. Stress out to meet impossible deadlines.
    7. Work with insufficient funding.
    8. Communicate poorly, or not at all.
    9. Let your plan be non-existent, out-of-date, incomplete, and/or poorly constructed.
    10. Work with management, business leaders and/or a team that doesn’t understand the above.

Conversely, some ways to project success:
    1. Avoid too much “research,” or at least time-box it.
    2. Be sure everyone understands project goals and objectives—well enough to repeat them.
    3. Ensure an active sponsor from the start, who knows their role and has proper authority.
    4. Recognize potential changes early and take time to manage the decision process.
    5. Communicate well how the change management / backlog process works, and use it.
    6. Manage everyone’s expectations.
    7. Incorporate more contingency when you have less information.
    8. Communicate, communicate, and then communicate more.
    9. Use correct planning tools, and remember no two projects are the same.
    10. From the start, take time to develop the vision/goal/objectives with the sponsor and leaders, and then manage them, too, along the way.

Now onto politics. All organizations have them, so how do you play to succeed? Know that it’s different everywhere, but here are some universal keys:
    1. Build relationships with “influencers,” even if they’re not on your project.
    2. Know when and how to bring in the Big Guns.
    3. Find the “power” both inside and outside of your organization.
    4. Build trust and rapport with your team, sponsor, leaders, vendors, SMEs, and gatekeepers. In short, everybody. Look for things in common. Use different approaches for different people types.
    5. Don’t play “fair”...

Joe defines playing fair as always following the rules, and being totally transparent about everything—not good practice for successful PMs. Information is power, and you don’t have to tell everyone everything immediately. Instead, always use forethought. Manage communications to deliver the right message at the right time to the right audience. And it’s often not so much what you say as how you say it.

Can you bend the rules when needed? First, know the rules and guidelines, and the fences you need to stay within. Then, if you stray, make sure the risk is worth the reward. Be able to explain your thinking to yourself and to your boss/sponsor. If you’re considering to bend a big rule, don’t rush it. Maybe first run it by someone “safe,” knowledgeable, or risk-averse. Be prepared for the fallout.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the unusual, or something that would normally be refused. You can’t get a yes if you don’t ask. Prepare and craft your ask well—sell it. Don’t sell past “yes,” and be willing to take “no.”

Can you manage outcomes of others through influence? People are different—find out what motivates each person. Be inquisitive, ask questions, listen and learn. Maybe use personality profiling, like DISC or other tools. Some typical strong motivators include rewards, recognition, new technology/toys, avoiding or embracing risk, and freedom to self-manage.

Joe’s presentation was jam-packed with information. He shared additional thoughts about how to accelerate and improve your sphere of influence, market your project, communicate well, deliver bad news, know when someone’s lying, separating operations from new development, and the influence of organizational structures on projects.

Here is his Summary...

• Being successful doesn’t mean only playing by the rules
• Politics: know them and play it well
• Learn how to manage outcomes through influence
• Put on your marketing hat early and often
• Communicate, communicate, communicate
• Confirm and validate everything that impacts the project
• If you only learn a few things, remember to Ask a Question, Know Who Needs to Adapt in a Conversation, and Practice to Make Perfect.

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