EPISODE SUMMARY: What do the top 2% of project managers know that everyone else does not? Hear the team discuss Andy Crowe's research project and what sets top project managers apart when it comes to attitude, focus and prioritization, communication, approach and more.
DATE: January 3, 2017
LENGTH: 31 Minutes
PMI Activity ID: VTPodcast025
PMI Talent Triangle: Strategic and Leadership
ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we meet to have a conversation about what matters to you as a professional project manager. We may talk about certification. We share stories of success and how we can improve. And we draw on the experience of leaders in the field.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are a couple of those leaders, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And Andy, we are ringing in the New Year and, at the same time, celebrating our one-year anniversary here at Manage This.
ANDY CROWE: There’s a lot to celebrate, Nick. So Happy New Year to you.
BILL YATES: Happy Birthday, Manage This.
NICK WALKER: That’s right, that’s right. And what better way to celebrate the New Year and our anniversary than to sort of step back, maybe take stock in ourselves, make some resolutions, set some goals, and talk about what makes a top-tier project manager. And Bill, we are fortunate to have the guy who literally wrote the book on that.
BILL YATES: That’s right.
NICK WALKER: Our own Andy Crowe has a book titled “Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not.” And Bill, this book has made kind of a pretty big splash in the world of project management.
BILL YATES: It really has. I remember our delight when we saw that, in the exposure draft for the Sixth Edition PMBOK Guide, we actually have – the book is cited; the study is cited. And it’s early on, even. It’s in Chapter 3, when they’re describing the role of the project manager. And it’s very exciting to see that they’re referring to the research that Andy did in the Alpha Study to describe what makes a project manager successful.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, sometimes ideas and concepts take a little while to work and wind and wend their way into the PMBOK Guide. And so we were really happy to see this show up, and gives it a little bit of gravitas, perhaps.
BILL YATES: Yeah. And, you know, to add to that, I know it’s been referenced many times. I think it was two summers ago Chip and Dan Heath actually mentioned it as a must-read. They have – they’re prolific writers and well-respected authors, and I was really impressed by that.
NICK WALKER: So tell us a little bit, Andy, about the Alpha Study. Give us an overview of how this came about.
ANDY CROWE: Well, the Alpha Study was a look at 860 project managers. And we looked at who the high performers were. And the way we did that, Nick – so in order to go through this study you had to do a few things. You had to participate in a couple of very lengthy surveys. That was part one of what they had to do. But then also the project managers had to provide access to at least five stakeholders. These stakeholders were team members, senior manager, customer, and they were all current people. So these stakeholders, these five or more stakeholders, five to eight stakeholders, would take part two of the survey, as well. But they weren’t taking it for themselves. They were taking it for the project manager.
Then what we started to look at is, okay, here’s the way the PM answered questions about his or her performance. But here’s the way the stakeholders viewed that same person’s performance. And what we found was there are some interesting gaps. And it’s the gaps that make this interesting. What everybody agrees on is only mildly interesting. But where there’s a big departure, and where they view the same thing very differently, becomes a lot more interesting.
BILL YATES: There’s a book by Malcolm Gladwell, it’s called “Outliers.” And what I love is he states clearly the purpose of the book, and it relates so on point with the Alpha Study. Gladwell says, “This book is about outliers, about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary. Over the course of the chapters ahead I’m going to introduce you to one kind of outlier after another – geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars and software programmers. We’re going to uncover their secrets.” Well, that’s what Andy did in the Alpha book and in the study. But it’s for project managers.
NICK WALKER: Yeah, yeah. Is that how the idea got started?
ANDY CROWE: Well, not exactly.
BILL YATES: I think Gladwell got the idea from Andy.
NICK WALKER: Yeah, probably so.
ANDY CROWE: I would be happy if that were the case. The reality of it is, you know what, Nick, this started off in the very, very early days, before it ever formed into an idea of a real survey of project management practices, was to do a marketing survey and to start looking at project management preferences, what they prefer, what they’re looking for out of their careers, what they’re looking for out of their organization, what they’re looking for in training, rating, things like that. And so round one of that was more marketing related.
And then we started looking at it, saying, you know, there’s some really interesting questions about project management in general. And so that came out as really part one of the Alpha Survey. It was a very exhaustive, well, not exhaustive, but very lengthy, probably exhausting and lengthy survey, asking a lot of questions that we were just trying to understand. And then taking that data back, we collated it, and now we were really on target to understand better for part two of the survey and ask some really pointed questions that were helpful.
BILL YATES: And that gets to the gaps and answers the question of why, which that’s so fascinating. And that’s really the beauty of the study in the book is looking at why are these 18 out of 860 identified as top performers? What is it about the way they managed those projects that set them apart? And I need to just put in a quick word. Some people don’t know Andy quite as well as I do. This guy’s very metric driven. He’s a Black Belt Six Sigma. He is all about measuring in order to determine if something is improving in terms of performance. If you cut him, he bleeds data.
ANDY CROWE: Nothing speaks louder than data.
BILL YATES: There you go. So when he went about this study, it was very rigorous in terms of treating the data with integrity, making sure that we had a diverse group. Even if you look at the profile of the 18 top performers, they’re from all different industries, all different ages, male, female. So truly the data has a lot of integrity.
NICK WALKER: Yeah. The thing that jumps out at me initially is just the amount of research and the time it must have taken to put all this together.
ANDY CROWE: Yup. It really was. It took a long time to do the survey. And there were parts of it we had to do more than once because perhaps we didn’t ask the question correctly, or we didn’t get back what looked like a statically valid response. And I got very acquainted with theories and statistics like the central limit theorem and other fun stuff.
BILL YATES: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: Understanding standard deviation and distribution and all of this good stuff. But it was a lot of fun. And honestly, Nick, it was a labor of love.
NICK WALKER: So what did you find? What did you discover?
ANDY CROWE: Right. You know, what we discovered early on is there’s sort of eight high-level groupings that we found that made sense to organize the data around. And so those were really attitude and belief. That’s one of those soft skill things that – do successful PMs view the world differently? I think the answer is yes, they do. They do view the world differently. But how? How do they approach their job? What’s their attitude? What are their beliefs about their profession? About themselves? So that was one of those eight.
Another one was focus and prioritization. And this was really based on the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote this amazing book called “Flow.” And I would encourage any of our podcast readers, especially the ambitious ones, those of you who like to read, read this book. It is absolutely amazing. It’s not a quick read, not an easy read, but it’s a wonderful book that talks about the psychology of optimal performance. And it’s how to get into this zone of flow, how to get – now, the research that we did was really based on his theory of distractions.
And Csikszentmihalyi claims that we’re really being bombarded with bits of information all the time that are competing for your attention. If you’re driving right now while you’re listening to this, then you have distractions there, and hopefully we’re not going to be a distraction; if you are sitting down at home or at your office. You know, you may have your phone buzzing. You may have people competing for your attention, or things worrying you about your job. And those types of things can compete for your attention.
How do the top 2 percent focus and prioritize on the things that matter? Because we all know, you know, you remember the Covey “Urgent & Important” quadrant that he made. And it’s so easy to get dragged into the urgent, the things like the ringing phone, and to miss the important things that are going to really move the needle in our job and our profession. Communication looks at how do the top 2 percent, what strategies do they use, what techniques, and how do they communicate more effectively than everybody else? That turned out to be a really important dimension.
BILL YATES: That was fascinating. One of the gaps in there I thought was the most significant gap in the entire study.
ANDY CROWE: You know what, it was one of the most interesting. We’ll get to the one that I found the most significant. But it was a huge gap there, and that is how the top 2 percent – not how the top 2 percent – how the 98 percent view their communication effectiveness and how their stakeholders view it. And it’s shocking. It’s just a shocking gap there between the two.
Then approach in organization. So, Nick, this is the idea of, when you’re handed a project, how do you begin to break that out into measurable pieces? How do you delegate that to your team, and what does that even mean to you to delegate? Do you just throw it over the wall? Do you hand it over to them with some kind of accountability? Is it measurable? Is it defined? Things like that.
Relationships in conflict, this one, I loved this dimension because it really got into how the alpha group, how the top 2 percent are getting things done. And one of the fascinating things we found there is they’re getting things done through these informal networks very effectively. They’re able to get things done, maybe not necessarily through formal channels.
And I’ve told this story before, but I was in Wisconsin working with a chapter there. And a guy came up to me and said, “You know what, I was a staff sergeant in Iraq, and I was the only guy who could get ice cream in the desert.” And obviously it wasn’t through formal requisition; right? He said, “But I was a really popular guy, and I could get things done using that as a lever.” And that’s exactly the type of thing that really illustrates what I’m talking about here.
BILL YATES: He was probably a big fan of “M*A*S*H.”
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, right.
BILL YATES: Could figure it out.
ANDY CROWE: Alignment gets into this idea. Alignment’s so important to me. And if you spend any time around me, you’ll hear me talking about it in a business context, just making sure that you’re aligned to the organization’s goals, to the department’s goals, to something outside of your project context. And this turned out to be a lot more important than I thought.
Now, I’ll tell you this. The whole idea with PMI getting into benefits realization so big – and if you haven’t heard about that, you will. There’s a lot of energy behind this idea of benefits realization, really ties back to alignment, as well.
And then issue management was number seven. And that’s looking at how project managers handle, communicate, resolve issues. A lot of negotiating going on there. It’s a huge part of project management. It might not have received the level of attention it needs to in the PMBOK Guide yet. But we are expecting that that’ll change over time.
And the last one, Bill, this is the one to me that had the most profound gap, was leadership. The way we view our leadership ability versus the way that people being led necessarily view it, there’s a profound gap there. And that was my – I think that might have been my favorite dimension in the whole thing. But leadership could be an umbrella for all of this.
BILL YATES: Right.
NICK WALKER: Did the top 2 percent have the fewest gaps?
ANDY CROWE: Oh, no, no, no, quite the…
BILL YATES: They were the gap.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah.
NICK WALKER: Aha.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, so it’s interesting. What I was struggling with was what is the smallest number of people that I can use in this study to still have statistical significant? And really it came down – because if you took the top one or the top 10 people, then you would have much bigger gaps. The gaps get smaller the further out you go because there’s obviously more people involved.
So as we started doing this, we really looked at it and got some advice from a research assistant who said, you know what, it really needs to be about 2 percent. You need sort of 18 people in this to have any sort of statistical significance to it. Otherwise it’s going to get so small that the variations are going to get crazy, and it won’t work as well.
NICK WALKER: Surprises. Anything that surprised you, out of the ordinary, that you weren’t expecting?
ANDY CROWE: You know, there was a lot in here that surprised me. And I think the big umbrella surprise, Nick, is that we have a lot of difficulty in self-assessing.
BILL YATES: So true.
ANDY CROWE: It’s really challenging for us. And here’s sort of the fact around that is we don’t see ourselves the way that other people see us.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: We don’t see our performance the way that other people see it. And it’s really challenging to step out of our self and look at our self sort of in this third person and do it accurately. It’s painful. It’s unpleasant. We don’t want to do it. So, yeah, that’s part of it.
BILL YATES: That’s true. And I think even for those who have taken online assessments before, some of those tools will have – they’ll show you two views, and one is where – the second view is where you are starting to try to read into the questions or try to put yourself in a better light than you are. And so it’s a part of human nature. And it was fascinating to see, to think of someone who’s actually filling out this survey and trying to do a realistic assessment of their own performance, and then just to see the responses that came back from a customer.
And there’s some very pointed examples. You know, Andy followed up on kind of the metadata and went deep into it and had some really interesting conversations with some of these participants. And Andy, I think of one quick story of a manager. And I can’t recall if it’s his or her, but let’s say his frustration with his PM, who kept giving him a summarized report that was too big.
ANDY CROWE: Oh, it was huge. And, you know, you’d go through this, and every week he would get a 17-page status report. And I actually spoke to that senior manager. He was one of the few people I talked to live on the phone that wasn’t an actual project manager. But his frustration was every time this would hit his inbox, it would make his blood pressure go up. And he got it once a week. And he explained it to me this way. He said, “You know what, Andy. I really live and die on earned value data. What I need is about a third of a page. That’s all I need. Instead, every week I get 17 pages that I have to mine through.”
And he said, “When I told my project manager I don’t have time to comb through and mine through 17 pages every week, the response I got back was, ‘Well, you should.’” And it sets up this gap right there. There’s a gap between, you know, the project manager thought that they were doing this great work of art and delivering something wonderful that was going to be a page turner. The senior manager didn’t have the time or interest of going through it. And it really set up now that PM put their performance pretty high in terms of communication. And the senior manager said, “No, no, no, not so fast.”
BILL YATES: “I need a summary. I have several people just like you that come in and give me this on a weekly basis. I don’t have time for this.” And to me those kinds of stories help, when I’m looking at the data and looking at the charts – and, by the way, I love the way that the charts are laid out in the book. It’s just very – it pops out. It makes it very clear to see those gaps. But when I look at the larger study, and then I hear the individual stories, it helps personalize or helps me understand why some of those gaps are there.
NICK WALKER: So what’s the takeaway here? As project managers, what can we learn from that? Is it just better communication? What can we do with that information?
ANDY CROWE: I think there’s a couple of things. I think as a project manager, one of the things we need to do is to get more in touch with how other people are experiencing our performance, especially people that would be in sort of a stakeholder or customer role. And the team, as well, everybody. We need to understand what it is they’re looking for. Now, PM is in a really rough spot because you have pressure from customers and the organization. You have pressures from the team. And it kind of all meets at this critical point. We’ve talked about that on a previous podcast.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: It’s a difficult job. But I think understanding – understanding what people are looking for, how they’re experiencing your performance, how they’re experiencing your communication. And so we might do that through 360 reviews. Might do it through a number of different techniques. You might do it by just sitting down and having a conversation. But taking that first step is incredibly important, and taking the initiative. You don’t wait for the organization.
But Nick, one thing along those lines is I think that maybe the best lessons here are for the organizations. I think, yeah, there’s only so much individual PMs are really going to do to improve their performance. But if an organization wants their project managers to get better – and I think most organizations would say yes, that’s important to us, and we hear it a lot – then I think there are steps that they can take to facilitate that, to facilitate sort of 360. And maybe not formal 360 reviews. Maybe a different way to facilitate mentoring relationships.
BILL YATES: Right. Right, right, right. Yeah, I see organizations that are really getting more and more mature in this. They have templates. They have tools that they train their project managers on how to use. But then they take that next step. They have a mentor. They have a coach. For instance, if I’m not sure how I’m resonating with my team in my weekly meetings, wouldn’t it be great if I had a third party, somebody who had my best interests in mind, best interests of the organization, sit in on a meeting? Just audit a meeting. Give me feedback.
ANDY CROWE: Well, I sat down with a large Atlanta-based company not long ago and was talking about project management with a person who was basically the head of their PMO, and was discussing this idea of what do you look for in your project managers? What attributes do you want them to develop or to have, possess? And the person really struggled at answering that and said, “Well, you know, somebody who can get a project done on time, I guess.” And then maybe thought about it and said, “Well, no, that’s not right. I guess we look for this value, or maybe this one.” It was struggling. And yesterday, just hitting close to home, we took time at our standup meeting and just talked about, hey, what are the values at Velociteach that we look for in people? What really does matter?
BILL YATES: Yeah.
ANDY CROWE: You know, there’s some stuff that we’ll say matters that doesn’t matter. But what really is going to help you?
BILL YATES: Right. And I’ve seen some organizations – I’m thinking of a financial institution that I worked with recently. They took a very basic step which is, again, necessary, and wrote out or refreshed their job descriptions. They said, okay, we’re having a lot of confusion about different roles. So here is the role of a project manager. Here are the expectations. Here’s the skill set that these individuals should have. And this is how they can excel. And program manager, again, here’s the difference. Now I can lay out two pieces of paper side by side and see, okay, well, here’s the role of the project manager. Here’s the role of the program manager. Here are the skill sets required for both.
ANDY CROWE: So, Nick, to really answer your question, I think organizations – I think one of the things we do with this data, organizations need to look at it and say, hey, there’s a rather large gap that exists in the world in general.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: Between project managers and their stakeholders. And that gap’s not healthy. Good things don’t happen in that particular gap. It’s a lack of awareness, maybe on both sides. And so organizations can work to help close that. And I’ve seen some taking steps to do that.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
NICK WALKER: Now, I’m wondering – and this is a personal question. But after all this research, after you finished the book, were you able to look in the mirror and say, hey, I’m an alpha project manager?
ANDY CROWE: Oh, of course. No. You know what’s funny, Nick, it’s the top 2 percent, and that’s a pretty doggone high standard.
BILL YATES: Yeah, it is.
ANDY CROWE: So this is funny. People who went through this would write comments occasionally. And there were many, many people who went through this study who had completely average results, who were absolutely convinced they were going to be alphas. I’ll put it this way. I worked many, many years ago for a company called Cambridge Technology Partners, and loved it, and learned so much about project management. That may have been the briefest, most concentrated time of learning, one of them, in my career. It was a really, really good thing for me. So when I was there I might have had a shot at being an alpha because, remember, you don’t self-nominate. You’re nominated by others.
BILL YATES: Right, right.
ANDY CROWE: But the reason was twofold. Number one, I was doing the best job I could do; and, number two, I was in an organization that appreciated and valued project management, that nurtured me, that tried to help me along. And it was a love fest from that standpoint. Now, at some point later I went to an organization that didn’t value project management. They looked at it as a cost. It was tracked and measured as a cost. And you were kind of viewed as a necessary evil, at best – something we have to have, but we don’t really know what to do with you. And there, I don’t think there’s any way I would have been considered an alpha.
But it’s again in large part because of the context. It’s where are you going to thrive? You know, if I go down to Miami, and I dig up a palm tree, and I bring it up here, maybe if I do it in June or July it’ll do okay for maybe June, July, August, and then September. But then, you know, when the leaves start falling in Atlanta, that palm tree’s not going to thrive. It’s not a good environment for it.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: And so there are environments where alphas are going to kind of naturally emerge. And there are dysfunctional environments where even good project managers are going to struggle.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
NICK WALKER: So you must have learned something to help you personally.
BILL YATES: Oh, yeah.
NICK WALKER: I mean, did it actually change the way you manage projects?
BILL YATES: Yeah. There are so many anecdotal points made in the study and in the book. And there are also bigger points, too, things, you know, Andy mentioned communication and prioritization. So think of email. Think of the flood of email that every project manager has every day. So some of the tips from the top performers really resonated with me, you know, ideas that – and it’s almost some of these seem counterintuitive.
And that’s was the beauty to me of some of the comments that came back from participants, is some were saying, “Well, I think I’m really on top of things because, as soon as an email hits my inbox, boom, I respond to it.” And then the alphas were saying, “No, I’ve trained my stakeholders, or I’ve set proper expectations with my stakeholders so they know I’m going to get back to those issues. They know when they’re going to get the periodic information from me, so they’re not asking me for it. I’ve already proactively set their expectation, and I’ve set their expectation in terms of timing of when, in a typical day, when I’m going to review my email or return calls that I’ve missed.”
So to me that was a breath of fresh air. It’s like, okay, you know, there was something in my head that said there’s a better way than just responding in the moment and getting distracted and getting off my game as to what’s the most important stuff for me to be doing today. Those were very valuable takeaways for me.
ANDY CROWE: And you know, Nick, this is sort of a high-level thing. Yes, it definitely impacted the way I manage projects. But one of the ways it impacted it is I don’t assume that people are necessarily hearing what I’m saying, the way I’m going to say it.
BILL YATES: Right, right.
NICK WALKER: Aha.
ANDY CROWE: It’s not just a one-way broadcast of information. There needs to be a much, much more effective loop, a feedback mechanism. And so I need to meet with my stakeholders. I need to empathize with my stakeholders. I need to understand what their concerns are and really try and speak to those. So communication is not something now that I have to do. It’s something I get to do.
BILL YATES: Right.
NICK WALKER: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the book?
ANDY CROWE: You know what, the feedback has been very positive on the book. It certainly sold well. So it’s been good from that standpoint. But I’ve had a lot of good conversations with a lot of project managers, with a lot of chapters, and with some organizations that we’ve gone into and taken this research and helped them try and figure out, okay, how do we apply this in a useful way?
BILL YATES: Yeah. Okay, Nick, he’s being pretty modest. We’ll just get him to leave the room for a minute. He is a frequent speaker at PMI chapters, at professional development days. Large organizations will have him come in and speak, if they have a day that they set aside for project managers. And this topic is one that gets requested over and over. I know personally of a number of organizations that they go through book club or study group or PMO, you know, somebody will initiate, hey, here’s a book that we’re going to read and just take it apart together. What can we learn from this, and how can we improve our practice? So it’s really made a difference. And now it’s even quoted in the PMBOK Guide.
NICK WALKER: Yeah, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: You know what would be fun to me is to see other project managers pick this up and ask what kind of research they can do. I’m fascinated with organizational behavior. It’s sort of a really deep interest of mine, sort of organizational psychology. And I wonder, you know, maybe this will spur somebody else to look and ask further questions and deeper questions that they can get some interesting answers to.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
NICK WALKER: Is this a how-to book? I mean, can you read this and say, okay, I want to be an alpha project manager. I’m going to read this book and do it?
ANDY CROWE: There is some how-to in there, Nick. No, it’s not a how-to book. It’s describing a group of high performers. And, you know, the truth is, let’s say that everybody’s performance improved. There’d still be a top 2 percent.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: So there’s always going to be a leading group. And hopefully we will get better over time as we go through. It looks – it’s more – okay. I think I can put it this way. It’s more descriptive than it is prescriptive. So it describes what the top 2 percent in this study were doing differently. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for everybody in every organization. There are some good takeaways. There are some good how-tos in there.
BILL YATES: Yeah. I’ll say this, too. The book is a bit humbling. And I like that. I like to be challenged when I read something. I like for something to startle me, whether it’s data or an anecdote about something that worked in an organization. And this book certainly does that. And while I’m talking about it, too, let me mention this before I forget. If someone’s interested in picking up a copy of the book, we have them available. And I was thinking of what’s the easiest way to get people there. You can go to our website, the same place where you’d find Manage This, Velociteach.com. You can find Self-Study Resources, and the book is available there. We have links directly to Amazon, or to Apple to purchase the iBook. You can also go to iTunes. If you go to iTunes and select Books, select Store, and then search for Alpha Project Manager, it’ll pop up there, and you can download it there and purchase it.
ANDY CROWE: The iBooks version is actually pretty cool. There’s a lot of interactive stuff you can do with it. So if you have an iPad, if you like consuming content that way, that’s a neat, interactive version.
NICK WALKER: “Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not.” Hey, if you need to give somebody a late Christmas gift or a Happy New Year gift…
BILL YATES: That’s right.
NICK WALKER: …the project manager on your list can use this, for sure. Hey, a New Year’s resolution you might be making is to get your PDUs early and often. And we want to help you get the new year off to a great start by reminding you that you can earn professional development units just by listening to this podcast. To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click on the button that says Claim PDUs, and it will walk you through the steps.
That’s it for us here on Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on January 17th for our next podcast. You can always visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us. And tweet us at @manage_this if you have a comment about the podcast or a question for our experts.
That’s all for this episode. Talk to you again in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and keep calm, and Manage This.