How does a project manager talk on the topic of project management?

A CIO from within my company from a different business unit and outside our region asked if I could speak to his IT team on project management.

Nice to be asked to speak on this topic, however, given the ginormous nature of what project management is, or can be to an organization, I thought “Where do I start?”

What follows in this (albeit lengthy) article is a reflection of my experience to tackle this vast topic within the span of a one-to-two hour meeting. My hope is that the sharing of my experience will help you if you find yourself in a consultative role.

My first thought was to treat this request as a project and, at a minimum, determine the scope and time I would have to fulfill the request. In framing it this way, next I wanted to know what he really wanted me to speak to (Scope). What topics did he consider to be project management? To answer this question, I did not want to use project management terminology (Scope, Time, Risks, etc.). I wanted to hear in his words. I would do the translation later. How much time would he allow for his team (Time)? How formal, or informal, onsite or on a call, structured or unstructured (I was thinking of what resources I would need to pull this together)?

I had some thoughts on how to proceed but also recognized it was important to have a shared view with this sponsor. I arranged for an initial call as I wanted answers to my questions, his support and my “charter” to move forward. We scheduled a call.

Layer 1

At the start he said, “I am spending too much time trying to keep them (IT team) on task.” During the call, his responses to my inquiries and the initial input provided me with created the following perception of what I would be taking on to address this topic.

  • The C-level sponsor spoke of how the IT team was having trouble getting out of its own way.
  • The team has a large number of projects on their plate, but are not particularly adept operationally to allocate resources, and distribute among the portfolio of projects.
  • Time frames were not being met and in some cases developed to move forward with projects.
  • Ongoing initiatives were sometimes reaching a crises level before he had any awareness.
  • He expressed how his view was that they needed more project management discipline and standards.

Layer 2

Good starting point, I thought. Hearing his frustration, I asked what would be a desired list of topic areas to cover. This was my attempt to further refine the ‘scope’ of the presentation. His responses led me to create the following list. The items in parenthesis illustrate how I was interpreting the list and moving towards creating an agenda.

  • Developing and understanding scope of work (Scope)
  • Allocating resources and estimating workloads (Resource Management)
  • Setting milestones and deliverables (Timing and plans)
  • What should be accomplished at project status meetings (Communications)
  • Holding to task and getting work done (Executing the project)

Layer 3

We continued the conversation, I investigated and questioned further in search of a next level of clarification. Project managers know it’s all about the details, so I delved further with two-to-three additional questions on each of the threads. Here were my follow up questions and/or thoughts that we explored.

  • Developing and understanding scope of work
    • Are project proposals and/or charters presently used?
    • Are executive sponsors, business sponsors, champions and/or subject matter experts (SMEs) known to those who are managing projects?
  • Allocating resources and estimating workloads
    • Is there a presently recognized list of all available resources (individuals) for someone leading a project to pick from?
    • What tracking project management tracking tools, if any, are being used today?
  • Setting milestones and deliverables
    • Milestones and deliverables are set in the beginning of the project with buy-in from sponsor; was there an understanding and capture of these important items happening?
    • Once scope is known there will be the “planning” phase in which the project manager can research and prepare a plan that outlines milestones and deliverables. This plan (sometimes encompassed in a charter) is reviewed and signed off prior to kick-off. What are the more important items that you would like to have awareness on?
  • What should be accomplished at project status meetings?
    • This is an easy one. Once plan is established, a project status meeting should be specific to reporting on the agreed upon status elements, most importantly; time, scope, budget, milestones, followed by risks and next steps.
  • Holding to task and getting work done
    • This one is a little difficult given we work in an environment of doing more, with less; however, I believe that holding to task is based upon complete recognition of project statuses across the team (Project Manager, Executive Sponsor, Team Members, Stakeholders). Visibility is key.

Layer 4

The final item I reviewed with the CIO was to ask what kind of “voice” would most resonate with his team, meaning; would I speak from personal experience, or from well-established and accepted methodology, such as PMI?

The end-result of our phone dialog and follow up email exchanges moved this presentation from ginormous to enormous. I looked forward to talking the team. Like many other speakers/presenters I create outlines (and sometimes, completely written out narratives) in preparation for a meeting/presentation. Here are my cryptic notes.

  • Intro and establishing my voice:
    • I am here to share experiences and help you achieve your goals.
    • Life within the “system” (reference to our organization) and career experience.
    • No one is immune. The best project managers still encounter the challenges of adhering to scope, keeping within budget and timelines, communications, etc.
    • Small-to-big projects. Been there, done that.
    • Fundamentals apply across all projects.
    • The Magic Project Management Triangle: Time, Scope, Resources (e.g. people and money)
  • Let’s talk about the work (Scope)
    • Formal: Proposals and Charters. Getting it right in the beginning.
    • Informal (small) a Word doc or an email to summarize and capture intent.
    • Establishing the “flag”. The flag is the vision and becomes the foundation for all other work. The flag is your empowerment.
    • Sets expectations internally and externally across all stakeholders.
    • End-results, time, budget, communications, resources… the more you can get the better.
    • Ability to “translate” from business-to-tech speak, and back.
  • How to do it – the tools
    • There are many; MS Project, Excel, online tools (SmartSheet), etc.
    • Depends on formality and structure of organization
  • Importance of Milestones and Deliverables
    • Start with scope
    • Get confirmation from sponsors and stakeholders
    • Start with end and work backwards
  • Keeping You in the Know – Status Meetings
    • Importance of communications. There are thousands of styles and formats.
    • Establish your personality and voice.
    • Formality and structure of organization will guide.
    • Get agreement upfront on style, format, etc.
    • Difference between internal and external project meetings.
    • Difference between project staff and sponsor meetings
    • When to interject subjectivity (e.g. dealing with emotions) and objectivity (e.g. Time, Scope, Budget, Achievements, Risks, Upcoming, etc.)
  • Staying on track
    • The “flag”. Remember, this is your empowerment to make it happen, use it often, and definitely pull it out when stuck or being challenged.
    • The plan. A lot of good work into your plan so stay the course. Plans do change, but a majority (relative term) of the time, the details will remain the same.
    • With a little help from your sponsor. Getting stuck, being challenged? Your sponsor wants project to succeed, engage them, make them part of the team.
    • Frequency of Communications. Very rarely will you over-communicate. Establish a schedule, stick to it and if you question whether you need to send out something else, do it.


The CIO and team were engaged and responsive during the two-hour meeting, this was evident by their probing questions. Many times they raised present, or past situations, wanting to know how, or what could have been done.

My approach of peeling the layers away to ensure the CIO was getting what he wanted worked.

So, what do you think? Did I cover enough within my allotted time? What would you have done differently?

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Filed under Business, Project Management

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