Understanding Your Environment

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello is a Solution Lead for Program & Project Management based in Chicago who enjoys exploring how to tightly couple the art and science of project delivery with business operations.

“The environment is everything that isn’t me.”
Albert Einstein

At Slalom, we are all seasoned experienced consultants.  And although none of us is quite an “Einstein,” it is important to understand what the good doctor was talking about regarding the environment in the context of project management.

As consultants, we constantly find ourselves in roles with new clients and unfamiliar environments. Often, when we start a new engagement, we hear statements like “our business is complex” or “our company is very different from all the other companies.” The way a project manager responds to these challenges can greatly impact their ability to lead a project to successful delivery.

To be successful, knowing project management terminology and theories isn’t enough; soft skills make the difference between a taskmaster and an effective leader.  A project manager needs to understand the environment within which they operate in order to be effective.  And, as Einstein implies, the term “environment” encompasses many things.  To narrow the definition, there are three major areas to focus on: people, business, and project operations.

Slalom Consultant Jennifer Harris

Slalom Consultant Jennifer Harris is based in Chicago. She has deep Program Management and Project Management experience in an array of industries.

People:  People are the greatest assets on our projects; understanding the drivers, perspectives and needs of those resources will greatly improve your ability to be effective.  With that in mind, it is important to take time to get to know about the people involved with the project, both directly and indirectly.

Stakeholders in particular can sometimes be difficult to get to know due to their busy schedules and limited availability (see Lessons in Stakeholder Management).  Do not let that deter you from finding ways to understand their needs, spheres of influence, and communication styles.  There are many practices and methods for gathering this information.  Use communications tools and templates as well as Organizational Change Management practices to get the information you need.

If a stakeholder has limited availability for in-person meetings, leverage other project team members to gain valuable insights into methods to effectively interact with your stakeholder.  As the saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Sometimes you may need to get a little creative to identify less obvious sources of information (see Tips for PM’s Managing Global Teams).

Business:  As consultants, we often find ourselves moving between clients and industries on a regular basis.  A breadth of experience provides a project manager with the ability to draw on similar situations for inspiration.   However, this mobility may also mean that a PM is not familiar with the nuances of the client’s business environment from day one.  We are brought in to help clients based on our specialty knowledge, not specialty within their environment.  That means, to get up to speed, we need to ask dumb questions.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book, Getting Naked, he addresses ways for consultants to get better at servicing their clients.  One of the key precepts of the book is for us to shed our fears.  The Fear of Being Embarrassed can be one of the primary blockers to our success.  The way to shed that fear?  Ask dumb questions. (For more on Getting Naked and ways to improve, check out blogs by Slalom’s Paul Shultz and Roger Kastner.)

By asking questions, PM’s gain a better understanding of the environment.  With this understanding the PM will be better able to anticipate risks and to guide communications that will help to keep a project on track.  Without a strong grasp of the client’s business, a project manager may not appreciate the things that impact decisions and as a result may come across as ignorant, ineffective or even detached.

Project Operations:  this is a broad area, including the client’s processes and methodologies, available tools, and history of related projects.  While many project management methodologies are similar with variations in terms, templates, and required steps, it’s important to know what the client has implemented and what they’ve found works or doesn’t work in their organization (for more on standards and practices see Proven Practices).

Odds are that the client’s methodology has evolved over time.  It is important to understand how they arrived at their current state so that you know when and where it is appropriate to make improvement recommendations, versus when it’s expected that the current process be used.  If possible, it is also helpful to learn about past projects to understand what worked and didn’t work within the organization so that lessons learned can be taken into account within the project structure and execution approach.  Even when there are no processes or standards, it is still helpful to learn the history:  how (why) did they arrive at a lack of standards.  Understanding this information can enable the project manager to make more appropriate recommendations.

Similar to Albert Einstein’s quest for answers in quantum mechanics, project managers are also in a search for answers regarding successful project delivery.  While there probably is no single answer for success, an understanding of your project’s “universe” will help.  Leverage the assets at your disposal to become masters of your own universe.

Authors: Jennifer Harris and Carl Manello

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About Carl M. Manello
I am Slalom Consulting's Practice Lead for Delivery Effectiveness. I work to support organizations' capability and delivery maturity -- not just IT organizations -- so that their initiatives run more predictably, efficiently and provide the best results.

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