0.5 Power Skills
Our Guest This Episode: Elizabeth Harrin
Research shows that 85% of project managers lead two or more projects. If you are one of the 85%, how do you juggle everything? In this episode, Elizabeth Harrin talks about her recent book: Managing Multiple Projects: How project managers can balance priorities, manage expectations and increase productivity. She offers practical advice on how to more effectively manage a significant project workload. Elizabeth believes that something is missing in the way we are taught to manage projects, and when training does not match reality, project managers feel stressed in their jobs. Most of the time not everything happens according to plan, so this episode is about saving time and working smarter!
Elizabeth shares critical skills that a project manager should sharpen when taking on a multi-project workload. These skills include: scheduling, managing resource and task-related dependencies, and engaging stakeholders. Hear about the sushi, the spaghetti, and the side dish workloads, and the five “Ps” of Elizabeth’s managing multiple projects framework: Portfolio, Planning, People, Productivity (and productivity saboteurs), and Positioning. Listen in for more advice about consolidating workloads, combining schedules, prioritizing work and engaging stakeholders, to successfully manage several projects at once.
Elizabeth Harrin is an author, speaker, and mentor who helps people manage projects with straight-talking, real-world advice. An APM Fellow and author of 7 books, she is on a mission to make sure you can deliver better quality projects with more confidence and less stress.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"...And if we have organizations that support us, and the culture is there to understand the capacity for change, then we can fly. We can do the things that our companies, our organizations need us to do because we do have the right skills to do it. The challenge, the flipside of that is often we’re asked to do that without the resources, funding, and time to make it possible."
"...engaging people is around considering how they want to receive information and being aware of the fact that they’ve got lots of other projects that they’re also working on. So how can we combine communication, combine meetings, and make the best use of their time and ours?"
The podcast by project managers for project managers. Hear practical advice from Elizabeth Harrin on how to more effectively manage a significant project workload, and how to manage several projects at once. This episode is about saving time and working smarter!
02:07 … Meet Elizabeth
03:44 … Inspiration for the Book
06:56 … A Multi-Project Environment
07:41 … Scheduling Challenges
08:44 … Simplifying Scheduling
10:55 … Managing Dependencies
12:10 … Engaging Stakeholders
13:46 … Sushi, Spaghetti, and Side Dish Workloads
15:13 … 5 Major Concepts
15:52 … Portfolio
18:39 … Planning
19:32 … Kevin and Kyle
21:03 … People Management
23:39 … Time Limitations with Senior Execs
25:45 … Better Connections
27:01 … Productivity
28:07 … Overcoming Procrastination
28:57 … RAID
31:31 … Positioning
33:44 … The Five Email Rule
34:44 … The Future of Project Management
36:16 … Contact Elizabeth
37:04 … Closing
ELIZABETH HARRIN: …And if we have organizations that support us, and the culture is there to understand the capacity for change, then we can fly. We can do the things that our companies, our organizations need us to do because we do have the right skills to do it. The challenge, the flipside of that is often we’re asked to do that without the resources, funding, and time to make it possible.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hi, and welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Thank you for joining us. My name is Wendy Grounds, and in the studio with me is Bill Yates. If you like what you hear, we’d love to hear from you. You can leave us a comment on our website, Velociteach.com; on social media; whichever podcast-listening app you use. If you have questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications, we’re always here for you.
Today we’re talking to someone we’ve spoken to before, and she’s well known in the circles of project management. This is Elizabeth Harrin. She’s an author, speaker, and a mentor who helps people manage projects. She has lots of straight-talking, real-world advice. Elizabeth is an APM fellow and the author of seven books, and she’s on a mission to make sure you can deliver better quality projects with more confidence and less stress.
BILL YATES: In this episode we’re going to talk about Elizabeth’s latest book. It’s called “Managing Multiple Projects.” In that book she offers advice on ways you can more effectively manage your project workload. If you’re like me, you typically had more than one project that you were managing at a time. Elizabeth tackles that. She gives great advice. Every chapter ends with key takeaways and action steps. Another thing I really appreciate about her writing style is she invites a lot of practitioners, project managers to give advice, share tips, share struggles. You’ll see those interwoven throughout each chapter. Great book, great resource. I’m excited to talk with Elizabeth about it today.
WENDY GROUNDS: Elizabeth, it’s so good to have you back, virtually. And welcome to Manage This.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Thank you. Thanks for having me back. It’s great to be here talking to you today.
WENDY GROUNDS: So I’ve read your book, and it is excellent, very helpful resource. And I was also looking back at when we last talked to you, and it was sometime I think in 2018. And I wasn’t even on the podcast yet. I think it was right before I joined Manage This. So it’s been a while. What have you been up to in the last four years?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: That was quite a long time ago; wasn’t it. So what I’ve been doing since then, well, I was leading projects until the autumn of 2019, so just before we went into the pandemic. In the worst of the pandemic I stopped working in a corporate project management role, and I took a couple of years away from that to spend some time writing, including that book; teaching, mentoring, that kind of thing, doing some freelance work. And I went back to corporate project management earlier this year, actually, yeah, earlier 2022, and to get back into what life is like as a project manager in a more virtual world.
BILL YATES: It is different, certainly.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: It is different.
BILL YATES: Yeah, yeah. I love the fact that, as an author of books, you still have your hands in it. And I appreciate that. Not only are you asking the opinions of project managers and surveying them and that influences your work, but also your own experience. And I think that resonates throughout this book. I’m excited about getting into it, and this is a great contribution to project managers. So, well done.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Thank you very much. I’m really proud of it. I know that I’m not that good at blowing my own trumpet, and I know we shouldn’t really be boastful about things that we’ve done. But I love this book. It feels like something I can be really proud of. So I’m glad that you’ve responded that way because it would be awful if I’d written something I thought was really great, and everyone was like, meh.
BILL YATES: Wah-wah. Yeah. I think right off the bat the statistic that just resonated with me personally and just from my own experience talking with our students and our customers, is that the reality is project managers are managing multiple projects, you know, to the point of the title of your book. And as your research was showing, 85% of the project managers lead two or more projects. That was my experience, always had at least two customers, usually three, maybe a few more at times. But it just changes things. And some of the advice you give in the book lines up with that so beautifully. So before we get into that, what really led you to write the book? Was it your own experience in managing projects? Or was it also kind of the outflow of information that you were getting from other project managers?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I think it was a bit of both. It was coming back to work after maternity leave and realizing that I’d gone from one big-ish project which felt very together to a part-time job. And as the part-time person I got a lot of small things to do. So there was a change in my workload which led me to have to work in different ways. And I started to listen to what other people were saying, as well, and this whole gap around the education around how do you juggle everything? What do you when the project management process says do these 10 steps? Do I have to do these 10 steps every time for every project? Can’t I be a bit smarter about things? And that seemed to come up quite a lot with people’s workloads. And we were all struggling.
So I got a group of people together, and we did a six-month deep dive, really, into sharing what I had learned about managing multiple projects. And as a training exercise it seemed to be quite successful. People seemed to get something out of it. And I suppose my interest in the topic started from that, thinking through, wow, this is something that’s really missing in the way that we’re taught about how to manage projects because all the courses I had done, even the ones I teach, up until that point had just literally been around this fake fantasy world of all the stakeholders love the project, they all support you, everything happens according to plan, and you’ve only got one thing to do.
And of course the stakeholders are all on 10 different projects. Resources are all on 10 different projects. We’re working for the person that shouts the loudest. And that’s not real life. It’s not surprising that project managers feel stressed in their jobs, when everything that we give them to do their jobs doesn’t really match reality. I mean, that might be a bit facetious, and I’m sure that there are plenty of roles where it’s a bit more structured and organized. But I think that’s real life for most people.
So, as with any book, and as with any training course, you take it away, and you learn what you can, but you have to tailor it to fit your environment. If you’ve got more things in your toolbox, you can then say, well, this strategy will work for me. This one won’t. But if I changed it a bit, then it might work on that project. And you can kind of build your own set of working principles. And I think what I was trying to do was just start that conversation for people. How can I lift myself out of the weeds? How can I be smarter about how I work? And maybe some of the ideas in this book will fast-track that for me so that I can get there better.
WENDY GROUNDS: Let’s start right at the beginning. Can you describe for us what a multi-project environment looks like, and the skills that someone would need to sharpen if they were taking on a multi-project workload?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I think what it looks like is someone who’s trying to do several projects at the same time, maybe for different clients, maybe for the same client, whether that’s an internal customer or an external customer. And they’re all at potentially different points in the project lifecycle, and they might be different sizes. So there’s quite a lot of skills that come into play. So I’d say, if I had to give the listeners three things to work on or to be aware of if they were about to start picking up more than one project at a time, moving into a role where that was a requirement, I would say scheduling, managing dependencies, and stakeholder engagement.
For scheduling, you can have lots of detailed Gantt charts for all your different projects. But I’ve personally found that to be quite time-consuming to pull together. So I am an advocate of scheduling my milestones where you can get away with it, or at least having a view of what are my main milestones on my projects? Predominantly because I have been tripped up by this in the past where I’ve had lots of projects and suddenly they’ve all had major things happening all in the same week. And I have been so busy. I’ve eaten rubbish food because I haven’t had time to cook anything. I’ve had major childcare problems because I can’t be everywhere at all the same time.
And if you’ve got that view of when are these different big milestones happening on my projects, and you’re scheduling in a cohesive way, you can at least predict that’s going to be a bad week and make some plans around that. And if you can’t change the dates, you can plan your meals in advance. You can sort out childcare all that stuff. And maybe you can influence some of the timeline so you don’t have five projects going live in the same week. Maybe you don’t have testing finishing for two things at the same time. So if you’ve got that visibility, I think scheduling is a really key skill to have.
BILL YATES: One of the tactical pieces of advice that you gave that I thought was really good was you probably don’t want to grab your favorite scheduling tool and make a massive, you know, let’s bring all the tasks or activities into this one Microsoft Project schedule or this Primavera schedule. Instead, let’s use something simpler, you know, just a more simple view. Could be a spreadsheet, could be a different tool of your choosing. But that way it’s easy. I’m not going to overload myself with thousands of tasks underneath this one master schedule. Just speak to that a bit. What’s some good and bad that you’ve seen in that?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I think what you’ve said is exactly the way that I would do it. In fact, sometimes I just write it out on a piece of paper. Because if you think about why am I bothering to do this task, it’s to give you personally visibility of what’s happening in the next three months so that you can make smarter decisions about how you spend your time, what you might need to change, what you might need to prepare for. So I do it in Excel or Google Sheets and just have dates and, you know, weeks down the side, projects across the top, and just drop in things like testing, big stakeholder meeting, this milestone, have to prepare papers for this decision. Go live, not even real tasks, really, but just more of a general feeling for what might be happening at that time.
And if you use that on a rolling basis, just for your own personal sanity check, then it’s all about giving yourself visibility and confidence so you don’t do what happened to me, and you get into work on a Monday morning and go, oh, what am I doing this week? Oh, I’ve got that giant stakeholder meeting tomorrow that I should have prepared for and that I was so busy last week that I didn’t even know, and I haven’t done the agenda. Then you start your week in a crisis already. So we’re trying to give people skills that mean that they don’t panic so much.
BILL YATES: Yeah, I like it. And it’s a…
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Does that make sense?
BILL YATES: Yeah. And it’s more, it’s like milestone and major deliverable view versus down in the nitty-gritty detail. The nitty-gritty detail still needs to be there in the schedule for the individual projects. But then you’ve got, yeah, you’ve got that high-level, okay, this is that major milestone. This is that major presentation I have to give, or this other team member needs to give, and I have to support them on, yeah. Okay. That’s the first one. Keep moving on.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: That was our first critical skill.
BILL YATES: Yes.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Second, I would say, managing dependencies. And that is because often I found that if you’re in an organization, and you’re working on a particular client project, for example, then you start to be labeled the person who works on that particular client’s projects. You may end with two or three projects for that particular client, customer, department, whatever. And so often your projects may have things in common. Either they’re resources that you have in common or perhaps they are various different stages of something that you’re doing for a particular customer. You’re doing a website project, for example, and there might be something around infrastructure that’s happening, or there might be something around design or building two or three different apps, I don’t know.
But you can see how various different projects may well link together. And getting your projects in the right order and understanding the dependencies, when you rely on other project managers to do something for your project, or you have to give something to them, then you have to just have those open conversations. What’s happening? Are you going to be late? I’m going to be late. I might be early. When’s this person going on holiday? All those different resource dependencies and tasks-related dependencies can really impact you if you’ve got a number of different projects that use the same resources, for example. I come back to resource because I think people are one of our biggest dependencies.
BILL YATES: Right, speaking to that, too, what I liked about your approach was, again, you’re an advocate for keeping things simple. You know, use a Google Sheet, create a spreadsheet, I love it. So many times our team members are focused just on that project, and they don’t have the value of that overall view.
So we as a leader, we may come into a meeting kind of frustrated because we’ve got that view in our head, but the people that were in front of us don’t seem to get the urgency; right? I really like that. It adds the level of communication for your team members and other stakeholders that I think is valuable. It just gets them all to see the big picture.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Well, stakeholders, that’s a brilliant segue into our third skill. Engaging stakeholders I’d say would be the third skill that project managers can build and will use a lot when they’re managing multiple projects because you need stakeholders to be on your team, on your side. And you need them for all projects, even if you’re only managing one big one. But when you’re managing lots of smaller ones, it’s also being aware of the other commitments that their stakeholders have, so the other projects that they are working on.
But generally it’s just all open communication, trustworthy relationship building because chances are, in my experience anyway, the more projects you have, the more likely it is that something will slip, and you might have forgotten to do an update for someone because someone else is shouting, or there’s a fire somewhere else you need to put out. And so good relationships with all of your team members and all your stakeholders helps them have confidence in you and your abilities, and they can trust that you’re always doing the right thing, even if perhaps it’s not going as fast or as easily as they would like.
WENDY GROUNDS: You gave some really good examples in the book about workloads. You talked about the sushi, the spaghetti, and the side dish workloads. Could you just describe that for our listeners?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Sure. I tried to come up with ways that categorize what different people’s workloads are because I think that helps you then decide how big projects are in relation to your workload. So to address what you’ve just said, where you’ve got lots of different projects, and they don’t really relate to each other, then I would describe that as a sushi workload because it reminds me of a plate of sushi, all the little things on the plate, nicely presented, but they don’t actually interact with each other. And you’ve got lots of separate standalone projects. So that comes with a whole host of its own challenges.
Where you’ve got a spaghetti workload, it would be where all the projects relate. And they all depend on each other. They’re all using similar resources. It’s like a giant tangle of spaghetti in the bowl. And when you go into a meeting, you start talking about one thing, and then you talk about another thing because it’s all very interrelated.
Then you’ve got the side dish workload, which is where you might have a day job, and that’s your primary focus, but projects are something that you do on the side. And we can call that “side-of-desk”; or, you know, you might have a day a week assigned to it. And I imagine a lot of team members on your projects fall into that category because they might be a legal expert or a marketing expert or some other kind of subject matter expert in your area in your organization, but they get roped in to help out on projects, and they have your project as a side dish to their main workload.
BILL YATES: I think that’s helpful. As we move into the five major concepts that you had in the book, I thought this was a great way to frame it from the beginning is, okay, given that we’re managing multiple projects, are they interrelated? Or are they separate? Or is it some kind of hybrid of those? It’s a nice way to step into it. And then you present these five concepts: portfolio, plan, people, productivity, and positioning. Obviously we’re not going to have you read the entire book to us at this time. Maybe that’s a feature we could offer. I don’t know.
WENDY GROUNDS: A book reading.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I don’t think we have an audiobook version of it yet.
BILL YATES: There you go. All right. But getting into these concepts, the first one is portfolio. Talk to us a bit about that.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I think whatever situation you’re in at work, it’s really important to have oversight of what it is that you’re actually doing. And when I talk to project managers about tell me about the projects that you’re working on, they’ll often list the top two or three and then think, oh, well, actually I’m responsible for training for my team. Oh, and there is that thing I started six months ago, but I never managed to get very far because it’s really low priority. And then, oh, I’m supposed to do the onboarding for this colleague. And you get this list of 50 things that forms their job. Then they get to Friday, and they think, well, what have I done all week? I’ve achieved nothing on my projects.
You have, but you’ve been working on these other things that are not necessarily part of your project workload, but are just the overhead of having a job and being a senior leader in the organization. Even if you don’t have staff to manage directly, you’ll still have a lot of other things that fill up your day.
So portfolio for me as a concept is just around having a consolidated understanding of what you spend your time doing, what is actually in your responsibility, what’s in your current workload. And then you can start to see some patterns between different tasks. You can start to group things. And I like grouping things because when I have lots of disparate things, it feels quite difficult to get my head around. It feels like switching between tasks. Whereas if I can label things and put them into buckets, then it feels like there’s some connection between them, and it’s a more natural segue between tasks.
So that’s what I mean by portfolio. And it’s basically taking portfolio management as project professionals we know and love, and we may work with a portfolio office or a PMO that has portfolio management principles, and thinking, how can I apply those to my actual day job and try and group my tasks into mini programs, for example. And that might make it easier for me to manage.
BILL YATES: Yeah. It’s a thoughtful approach, too. It forces us to, again, put on paper or put in a spreadsheet or a simple document, what are the different projects that I have? To your point, there are surprise projects. And by starting with this first step of just documenting the portfolio, you know, now I have talking points on this document that I can have with another sponsor who comes and says, “I know you’ve got five projects. I want you to have two more.” You know, is that even possible? So I think that’s a great first step.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: And then you’re having a sensible, facts-based, evidence-led conversation around, that’s great, I can totally do that, but here’s what I’m working on right now. So where do you fit? Are you more priority than this one? Oh, you are. Okay, well, go and agree that with that sponsor, and then come back and tell me, because we can work on whatever our bosses tell us to work on. We have the same amount of hours in the week. But we often need help prioritizing because organizations are not good at prioritizing. So we have to force that discussion, and having that list really helps.
BILL YATES: Exactly. That’s a place of personal freedom for me. As a project manager, I always had that sense of I can manage whatever’s thrown at me. I just need to be told what are the priorities; you know? Okay, talk to us about plan, the second P.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: The second P. It was a bit of an effort, actually, to try and some up with five P’s. You’ll see as we go through the five. By the end we’re really stretching it. But you have to have a concept; don’t you. So planning is basically what we were talking about earlier, scheduling. How do you create your schedules in a smart way so that you’re not overloading yourself, you’re not overloading everybody else, and how can you make good decisions about where to spend your time? So it’s a little bit around understanding the big picture schedule, understanding the priorities you were just talking about, and thinking through different ways to view that information so you can spend your time in the most appropriate ways week by week and look at the horizon and see what’s coming.
WENDY GROUNDS: Time for us to have a little break. We’re going to listen to Kevin and Kyle for a minute and hear what they’ve been up to.
KEVIN RONEY: Have you heard of Shrinkflation?
KYLE CROWE: No, what’s that?
KEVIN RONEY: It’s when product sizes shrink, but prices stay the same. For example take this bottle of sports drink… its 28 oz. and I paid $1.50 for it. For the same price I used to get 32oz. So companies are downsizing packaging, even sometimes reducing quality, but keeping the same prices.
KYLE CROWE: Is that ethical? It seems a little deceptive.
KEVIN RONEY: I guess it’s within the limits of the law if adequate information about the size is provided on the packaging. It is a little misleading to the unsuspecting customer though.
KYLE CROWE: That makes me think of how we behave as project managers. How committed are we to ethics? Typically a project manager is under pressure to complete a project – on time, on budget, and within scope. But there is a fine line between unethical project management to please a stakeholder, and rationalizing behavior as a “good business decision.”
KEVIN RONEY: You’re right; as we manage projects, we are in a unique position to be an ethical compass for a company. Instead of just being focused on our own personal goals, we have the opportunity to make the right decision to ensure we’re providing value to the customer or stakeholder. It’s one thing knowing what is right, but are we doing what is right?
KYLE CROWE: There’s a great course at Velociteach by Bruce Weinstein called: LEADING WITH ETHICAL INTELLIGENCE: FIVE PRINCIPLES FOR MAKING THE RIGHT DECISIONS EVERY TIME. This course will show how five simple principles of ethical intelligence—will help you make the right decision every time, everywhere, and enhance your reputation as a person of integrity.
KEVIN RONEY: Have you noticed how little pepperoni is on this pizza?
WENDY GROUNDS: Thank you, guys. Let’s get back to Elizabeth.
WENDY GROUNDS: Let’s move on to the third P, people, and how do you engage the people on your team as well as your stakeholders.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: For me, in my experience, lots of stakeholders work on lots of projects. So I went into a meeting once to talk about one project, and the sponsor was actually a sponsor of another of my projects, as well. And he asked me about that one. And I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for the questions. And I just blanked my way through the conversation. It was fine.
But in his head he was having a meeting with a project manager who manages his projects. And I was going in for a particular discussion about a particular thing. And it made me realize that actually our sponsors, our stakeholders are human beings with a massive workload, as well, and we need to be cognizant of that and listen and help them organize their own workload, too. So when I talk about engaging people, it’s things like how do you manage communication across different teams? How do you stop communication fatigue because you’re emailing about one project, and then you’re emailing 10 minutes later about another project. How do you combine project reporting? And how do you combine stakeholder meetings?
Maybe you do what we do and have steering group days where the key leaders are in, and then project managers just turn up, present their project, leave. The next project manager comes in, you know, we’re presenting to the board. We’re making the best, smartest use of everybody’s time. I think for me engaging people is around considering how they want to receive information and being aware of the fact that they’ve got lots of other projects that they’re also working on. So how can we combine communication, combine meetings, and make the best use of their time and ours?
BILL YATES: I thought the approach of okay, what other piece of information does this team member need to know because they’re also working on this other project.
And you really challenged me with some of the advice that you gave in the book which was don’t approach this as it is a single project because it is multiple. Therefore you really need to think about the audience, think about what they’re receiving, and treat them with respect. Answer those questions that they’re likely to have because of the overlap they have with these different projects.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: And that’s business acumen; isn’t it. That’s just being more aware of what’s happening outside the boundaries of your project, on your other projects, on their other projects. And also understanding how influence and informal power structures work within the organization and what might be useful for them to know about because they’re working on another project, and maybe there’s some kind of overlap there. It’s just openness, transparency, honesty, all of that good stuff. But like you say, it’s being aware and respectful of the fact that they have a job, and it’s not just to be your sponsor or your stakeholder or your team member.
BILL YATES: It’s common for us to encounter a senior manager, somebody higher up the chain who just doesn’t have the time that we expect, and we may prepare for a meeting with this senior manager. Then we get into it, and she just doesn’t have time. What do we do in those situations? What’s your advice?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Well, this has happened to me, and I’ve prepared a lovely slide deck, gone into the meeting, and then the chair, who was the Chief Financial Officer, said, “Assume we’ve read all the slides,” because obviously you have to submit everything in advance to the big meetings. “What do we need to know?” And I thought, okay. Right. So I’m not going to talk you through my slide deck because obviously you don’t want that. And that’s a very similar situation, where you’ve just got to get to the heart of the matter. I knew that that was likely to happen, to be honest, in that situation.
So I would advise people going into a meeting with a senior exec who is time poor to know exactly what you want to get out of that session. Is it a decision? Are you giving them an update? Do they need to make a choice about how to mitigate a risk? Are you asking for their advice or opinion? Are you giving them a recommendation? And then have two versions of what you want to say. Have the 15-minute version because I’ve got all your attention. And then have the two-minute version, which is let me remind you about this project because you’ve got 10 other things on the go, and you probably don’t even remember who I am.
And then, “This is the decision that we need. Here are a couple of options. What do you want to do?” So in that situation when I went in with my big slide deck, I had created a slide. I’d actually written it on a piece of paper. These are the three things that I want to get across. There are the three things I think you need to know. And I just used that. We didn’t even really have the slides. Because I don’t know whether actually everybody in the room had read them, but I’d been told to assume that they had. So I did. And we talked about those top three priorities instead. Which made the discussion much more useful, as well. I got what I wanted out of it. I got the decision. And I highlighted the challenges that we were having.
And I think if you know what your goal is, you’re not wasting anybody’s time – not yours, not theirs. It feels quite dismissive, to be honest, to go in and say, “I’ve booked this time with you. Oh, but I don’t have enough time for you. I don’t have enough time for your project.” But we have to try not to take it personally, get what we want out of the limited time that we’ve got, and then move on.
BILL YATES: I’m going to quote something from your book back to you that just echoes that. On page 87, one of the quotes that I underlined was “Better connected people enjoy higher returns.” If we take the time as the leaders of these projects to think about the interactions of these different stakeholders and team members, then we can raise their value. They’re going to be better connected. And through that they’re going to bring more value to the projects that we’re leading.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I think more information is always good. There’s a risk of information overload, and I don’t want people to interpret that as let’s copy in everybody on everything because we can just share everything about my project with anyone. It’s thoughtful communication and thoughtful sharing where it’s relevant to their role because it might be useful.
But it’s things like today I was on a call, for example, and someone asked me a question I didn’t know, but I knew someone who would, so we brought them onto the call because they happened to be free. By the wonders of Teams, you can just send people a quick message. Can you join this? Yes, I can. Great. Bring you in. And we sourced it out in 10 minutes, and that would have taken potentially backwards and forwards emails over 24 hours to try to resolve. So knowing the right people and then being able to ask the right questions can help you move your project on faster, but also can mean that you’re sharing information with them that may well help them in other ways.
WENDY GROUNDS: I loved the practical advice that you give in the book. The chapter on productivity really spoke to me, how to manage your work, how to focus your time. You also talked about productivity saboteurs. What is the biggest productivity saboteur?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: The biggest productivity saboteur for project managers from the survey that I did for the book was procrastination, quite closely followed by disorganization. If you looked at those numbers in isolation, you might just think that project managers were a bit disorganized and flappy and didn’t know what to do. But actually when you drill down into the narrative, and you start to try to work out why people are procrastinating, it’s often because they’re so overwhelmed, and they’re so stressed, that they don’t know what’s the right thing to do.
And so they end up kind of doing nothing, or working on something that’s not as relevant because it’s easy, and the bigger things fall by the wayside because they’ve been poorly briefed, or they haven’t got all the resources in place, or they can’t move anything forward or they don’t know how to get started because they haven’t had all the information. And so I think procrastination might be caused by lots of different things.
BILL YATES: So give us some advice on that. How do we overcome procrastination?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: I would start with, if you’ve got your list of projects, you’ve got your personal portfolio, you can then look at what priority each of those have got within your portfolio. I use time boxing a lot, I talk about it in the book. It’s quite a useful strategy to help keep moving everything on, even when some of the things are less important. Because let’s be honest, not every project is top priority for the organization, but you’re still expected to do them all.
So if you can think about what’s the priority for all of your different projects and allocate the majority of your time to the top ones, and then maybe keep an afternoon or some time in the week free to move on some of the smaller pieces of work, then you’ll know what you have to do at each particular time. And I also make a lot of use of RAID logs, my notebook where I write all the tasks down.
BILL YATES: Yes. Real quick, tell us what RAID stands for.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Risks, Actions, Issues, and Dependencies brings RAID. Although mine actually includes changes, decisions, general project contact list, whatever else I want to stick in there because it’s only a spreadsheet. It’s my working book, really, because I can go there and think, what do I need to move on? These are the top actions that I need to chase other people on. These are the risks that I really should be doing something about instead of just writing them down and ignoring them. And I can use that as a prompt for what work needs to happen next. And I think having that prompt can help you with procrastination, combined with knowing what your priorities are so you know what you should really be spending your time on.
BILL YATES: Yeah, that’s good. I’m reading a book called “When” by Daniel Pink right now. And a bit of that touches on productivity to the point of what’s the most productive part of my day? You know, each one of us has our own rhythm. But I know personally the most productive part of my day, and I know when I’m going to hit a lag, and I know when I’ll start to come back out of that dip.
Those items that I’m procrastinating on that are important, I need to place those right in the heart of the most productive part of my day, which then gets to some of your other tips about blocking, you know, blocking out portions of your schedule, making sure the team knows when you’re not to be interrupted, where you really need to have some focus, do some deep work. So all those really tie in and resonate with me in terms of overcoming that procrastination saboteur.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Yes. And it’s interesting you say that because I’ve started to think through how I schedule my time within my day. We all know, you know, especially if you’re training, the meeting that happens after lunch or the session that happens after lunch is always a struggle. No one wants to turn up to a meeting on a Friday afternoon, either. And while I know that in theory, I haven’t really acted on it until quite recently while I’ve started to think through, if I’m organizing a meeting, when do I want it to be? I have the power to organize it. I’d rather organize meetings for three days a week and have two days a week with no meetings.
And often when people say to me, “Oh, when can we meet?” I’ll go, oh, my calendar’s open. Anytime. But I’ve started trying more and more to say, “I take meetings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.” Because why not? And then I can keep some time free to do actual work. And it’s just trying to be okay with the fact that you can control your calendar. Project managers are in a very fortunate position in that we do have some influence over when we take meetings, when we book meetings, when we get together with our teams. You know, it’s not like it’s a free rein. I know that if a stakeholder/important person asks you to show up to a call, then you do. But in some jobs you don’t have any flexibility around how you structure your day. So we are fortunate in that respect.
WENDY GROUNDS: Your last P that you list in your book is positioning. Can you describe what you mean by positioning?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Yes. This is the P that was the hardest to come up with a word that begins with P.
WENDY GROUNDS: That’s why my question was a struggle.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: So I’m not surprised. It’s a great question. What I mean by it is position your environment for success. So what can we influence in our project management offices? What can we influence in our workplaces that will allow us to be more successful in the future? Because something else that I picked up from a lot of people I spoke to when I was putting the book together was we do the thing that needs to be done now. We are great at firefighting. Project leaders have a little bit of a hero complex, but I think that’s perhaps a little bit old-fashioned. But, you know, we get things done. We know how to get things done, and we can make issues go away.
Which is a great skill to have, but it often means we live in the here and now, what tasks are happening now, what tasks are happening next week. And we don’t spend very much time thinking through, if I turn this into a checklist, I could use it forever, and then my life would be easy in six weeks’ time when I have to launch a new project. If I change this process, or put in a process, or change the workflow, what would that mean for future me? How much better would my life be? Because everything is so heavy as a project manager. We’re under so many demands on our time that we often don’t have capacity to even think about what that might look like.
But I think we do have influence. So within your project management office, even if it’s a very small company, or even if you’re in a very large company, and you feel like you don’t have a voice, you can still think through how does it work for me? How do I interact with these processes and policies? What could I put into a checklist or a template so I can make my life easier next time around? How can I change my work environment so I get a lunch break with daylight, what do I need to do to make me feel like I belong in this office? How can I change my environment and have pictures of my family on the wall? Which is not something I do.
But if that helps you within your home office feel more connected and grounded, and you’re more likely to do your work, then, you know, we’ve got the power to make some of those changes. It’s really around influencing the culture of where you are to the best of your ability to reduce the mental overload for you in the future.
BILL YATES: One of the practical items that you hit on in this topic, you talk about the five email rule. So there’s an email thread that goes, somebody asks a question, then another question, suddenly you’ve got one simple email has become five, you know, everybody’s getting copied, and it’s gone around five times. Then some sane adult needs to raise their hand and say, “Timeout, let’s have a phone call.” Or “Can we get on a whiteboard together and talk this over?” You know, there’s a point at which let’s say you’ve been on PTO for the day. You come back, and you see an email thread that’s like 10 long on the same subject. You’re like, okay, what’s going on here?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: And it’s probably fragmented.
BILL YATES: Yes.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: So you’ve probably got…
BILL YATES: Yeah, it’s got different branches.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: So you’ve probably got half of the thread going off here, and then someone’s replied again to an older version, and it’s gone off again. It can be difficult to keep on top of those things.
BILL YATES: Yeah, this is a great opportunity for the individual to just change the culture of the team and how they work and how they communicate. You know, when do they go, okay, timeout, let’s go from one form of communication to another that may be more effective. Good advice throughout.
WENDY GROUNDS: What are you excited about for the future of project management?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: What I was most excited about, that’s a really good question because I think my big takeaway from writing this book was how project management is in a bit of a crisis because I felt quite sad after hearing people’s stories of overwhelm and how they were leaving the profession because they just couldn’t cope with the expectations on what it means to be a project manager these days. And I think we’ve all seen that the skills, expectations, especially within some of the professional bodies, that what it takes to be a good project manager is getting broader and broader. Maybe not deep, as well. Maybe just shallow expectation of having different skills. But it’s a lot. We’re asking a lot of people who lead projects.
So I suppose if I had to turn that around and say what I’m excited about, I think it’s the fact that as project professionals we can influence change, and we can deliver some amazing things. And if we have organizations that support us, and the culture is there to understand the capacity for change, then we can fly. We can do the things that our companies, our organizations need us to do because we do have the right skills to do it.
The challenge, the flipside of that is often we’re asked to do that without the resources, funding, and time to make it possible. So if we can, as a group of project practitioners and professionals, influence the broader culture in organizations to be able to manage the ambition, shall I say, around what we are capable of achieving, we can focus in on things that are really important and really make some change.
WENDY GROUNDS: How can our listeners reach out to you, if they want to hear more about your work or just get some advice or to get your book?
ELIZABETH HARRIN: Well, thank you for asking. You can get in touch with me on LinkedIn. I also have a Facebook group, Project Management Café. I meet with a group of project managers every month, so that’s our group mentoring program, which is Project Management Rebels. And the book you can get from your favorite local bookshop. It’s on Amazon, and it ships internationally. It’s in lots of places. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share it with your listeners.
BILL YATES: Thank you, Elizabeth. This is what project managers wrestle with day in and day out, which is I’ve got more on my plate than I can handle. What are some tips? How can I get better at managing multiple projects? And how can I raise awareness with my boss, with senior management, just so they know how much we’ve got going on, and help me prioritize. Thank you for your contribution.
ELIZABETH HARRIN: No, thank you.
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