Author: Alison Sigmon

Alison Sigmon is a longtime PMP-certified project manager, clinical therapist and business executive. She has led projects for software and user experience design; digital content strategy; brand design and development; marketing, advertising and communications strategy; business development and fundraising; video design and production; and ecommerce. Alison's efforts focus on the behavioral side of project management and relationships. Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is Alison's first book, and the first in a series on the subject. An avid distance runner, writer, hiker and traveler, Alison is a Gulf War veteran. Articles, presentations and training materials can be found at her website.

Managing Up to Keep Your Projects from Falling Down

Event Description: Think managing up is just brown-nosing in disguise? Think again. Managing up in projects done well will bring clarity, commitment, ownership, and support your project needs to meet time lines, get resources, and nail project objectives. In this webinar we explore how to work with higher ranking stakeholders in way that gets results and creates wins all around. Presenter Info: Alison Sigmon is a longtime PMP-certified project manager, clinical therapist and business executive. She has led projects for software and user experience design; digital content strategy; brand design and development; marketing, advertising and communications strategy; business development and fundraising; video design and production; and ecommerce. Alison’s efforts focus on the behavioral side of project management and relationships. Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is Alison’s first book, and the first in a series on the subject. An avid distance runner, writer, hiker and traveler, Alison is a Gulf War veteran. Have you watched this webinar recording? Tell MPUG viewers what you think! [WPCR_INSERT]

Fostering Sponsor-Project Manager Collaboration for Project Success

Seeing a project through to successful completion is a team effort. While champions for the content and process are needed among stakeholders, there are two roles that are extremely critical to the successful delivery of the project: the sponsor and the project manager. These individuals have a symbiotic relationship that requires constant collaboration and observance of respective responsibilities to meet project objectives. Enthusiasm, motivation, and a sense of purpose among stakeholders can break down when the PM and the sponsor are not equally committed to the project process and outcome. Unfortunately, the project will likely fail when the PM and sponsor are experiencing any the following: While these issues may seem daunting, they can be overcome by clearly defining roles and responsibilities that support a collaborative approach to meeting project objectives. Ground rules for authority, project planning, establishing estimates, and executing and controlling the project provide a touchstone for affirming commitment and care for the project. Sponsors can better support project managers, who typically function among stakeholders without authority, when they give authority and communicate support regularly. Project managers should seek out and accept authority to commit resources and lead the project. Once authority is established, planning the project is the next priority. For project managers to be successful with this step, they should manage stakeholder expectations, use the project management process, and adhere to ethical principles. While sponsors should not be involved in the day-to-day activities of planning, it is important that they set expectations, support planning activities, and validate project scope. Micro-management is a red flag that needs exploration immediately. When this starts happening, consider the following questions: Throughout the planning process, estimates will need to be adjusted as modifications and changes are made. When establishing estimates and making adjustments consideration should be given to managing time, cost, and scope. As a project manager, it is important not to fall into the trap of agreeing to unrealistic estimates. Heroics just lead to burnout of resources and ultimately the project. Focus on the big picture. Know the project details like the back of your hand, so you can speak to consequences and make recommendations that are realistic. Executing and controlling the project takes time and consideration. Sponsors can support this step by requiring that project performance metrics and control procedures are in place. This is also accomplished by holding project managers accountable, breaking down barriers cross-functionally, and not “shooting the messenger” when bad news is delivered. Project managers, along with their teams, must identify and verify performance metrics, assess and respond to change, communicate needs, and not wait to share bad news. If this resonates and you’re interested in help with how to deliver bad news, check out this article about how to do it in good ways. Observing these tips facilitates a collaborative approach and supports the sponsor and the PM being equally committed to the project. Want to learn more? Watch the webinar, Managing Up to Keep Your Projects from Falling Down now available, on demand. We will explore how to work with higher ranking stakeholders in way that gets results and creates wins all around. Related Content Webinars (watch for free now!):From Task Manager to People Manager – The Next Generation of Project ManagersCollaborative Project Management – Process & Power Skills Articles:Three Activities That Help Create an Authentic WorkplaceTen Project Management TruthsCommunication: 5 Ways to Improve Your Project’s Lessons Learned

3 Steps to Creating Your Project Culture

Doing more with less. Working smarter and faster, not harder. Gone are the days when we work on just a few things or concentrate our effort on just one area of expertise. We are now expected to wear multiple hats and manage a wide range of activities in our work. Project managers are no strangers to juggling schedules, cost,s and resources. People come and go on projects all the time, but when they do, it can be highly disruptive and create drag and confusion on the team. How can this be avoided? By creating culture within your project. Culture Keeps the Crazy Chaos of Resource Change in Check A “project culture” is a set of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that live outside the project team members. It provides a set of consistent standards and norms the team can refer to throughout the project. When project culture is strong and positive, it remains intact even as project stakeholders come and go. When project culture is absent, the team experiences can be inconsistent, confusing and divisive. Creating and maintaining processes that support consistent behaviors serve as a foundation for the natural ebb and flow of stakeholder activity on projects. Project culture addresses burning questions, such as expectations for contribution, documentation, meetings, communication and transition. Creating culture boils down to doing three things: Step 1: Leading with Charisma Success of a project is not based solely on timelines, budgets and scope. It’s also tied to how stakeholders feel about the project, the team and the leadership. Group perception of your skill, your knowledge and your ability to be “like us” are very important to establishing the norms and standards of culture in your project. It’s this culture that becomes a touchstone for changes and transitions of the many stakeholders and the work done for the project. The more connected stakeholders feel to the work and what it will accomplish for the “bigger picture” the greater chance for success. The more trust and respect felt in the project experience the greater chance for success. The more fairness and familiarity there is (that is, consistency and smooth transitions) the greater chance for success. The more confident and inclusive the project environment, the greater the chance for success. When people feel you’re invested in their success and believe you support their interests, they tend to feel more motivated to support you. Although this is a tall order for anyone to assume, project managers with charisma do it all the time! The Charismatic in You When people think of a charismatic person, they tend to describe them as being visible, strong, energetic, outgoing, self-confident, powerful and influential. The charismatic almost seems larger than life. People revel in being part of their orbit. What’s interesting about charisma is anyone can have it with a little effort. According to an article in Scientific American Mind, recent research on charisma, originally thought to be an attribute of a leader, was actually found to be an attribution given by followers. When followers see a leader as one who advances group interests, that leader is considered to have more charisma. Proof of this was observed directly. Perception of the charisma of a leader had a direct correlation to how well a company was doing. If the company was doing poorly, employees tended to not see the leader as having much charisma. If the company was doing well, employees believed the leader had more charisma. So, what does this have to do with project managers? For culture to be established and embraced in a project, stakeholders need to feel their interests and the group’s interests are being served. With the understanding that charisma is made and not born, project managers can use the “three Rs” of leadership to create project culture: reflecting, representing and realizing. Reflect: Understanding and Sharing Why In traditional leadership, reflecting requires that one learn about the culture and history of a group. In project leadership this requires the project manager to have a deep understanding of why the project is important to the business, how it will be integrated and used and when it is needed. To do this, project managers must do a lot of listening and asking questions. They should be curious and stretch beyond what’s currently known by researching what others have done inside and outside the company on similar projects and by helping stakeholders connect the value of the project to the company’s future. Represent: It Just Feels Right In traditional leadership, representing requires that the person lead others to draw the conclusions they need them to draw instead of telling them or spelling it out. It just “makes sense” or “feels right” to others because the person representing is a member and proponent of the group. In project leadership this is having appreciation for the power of asking questions and facilitating dialogue among stakeholders. You don’t have the answers — they do. It’s your job to create a culture that promotes open discussion early and often. It also requires that you know what you don’t know and partner with someone who does. Representing doesn’t mean you’re the expert. It just means you know how to connect with others who are and can integrate what they know into a compelling story for the project that become part of the lore of your project’s culture. Realize: Making Others Matter In traditional leadership, realizing requires that the person pursue the top interests of the group. They get the group organized and focused. In project leadership it basically comes down to making stakeholders feel like they matter whether they are on the project for a short time or for the long haul. When project managers are present, organized and pursue project priorities appropriately, they are reinforcing a culture of consistency and purposeful execution of the project. Step 2: Process Pays Off Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We don’t lead, create or manage in a vacuum. Others came before us, and we can (and should) take advantage of what they learned. Your behavior establishes your reputation as a project manager, and your reputation determines what people say about your project culture. Charisma helps with shaping a positive project culture environment, and process facilitates it. Whether stakeholders are involved with your project for a short period or the duration, process can ease transitions that invariably occur. Bottom line? Use your process tools to keep the project environment stable as people come and go. Step 3: Communicate Early and Often Communication works, but only if you work at it. This requires you do the following: Putting the Steps in Play Change almost always generates anxiety and temporary confusion. We’re creatures of habit, and it can feel disconcerting when the dynamic changes. Projects aren’t any different, particularly when it comes to people. Leading with the charisma process, using process and being clear about communication needs and expectations provide a foundation for project culture. It takes the guesswork out of why the stakeholders are there, what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to the work to meet project needs. A version of this article originally appeared on Alison Sigmon’s blog.

Delivering Bad News in Good Ways for Your Projects

Event Description: When bad things happen on projects, telling people is difficult. This tough job almost always falls on the project manager to figure out how to give it in a way that doesn’t derail the relationship or the project. So, why is delivering bad news hard to do? What are the tactics we use to avoid or postpone it? What can we do to get out of our own way so we can work the problem and get results faster? In this webinar you will get 3-step process to deliver bad news in a positive way for more productive, dialogue driven, solutions oriented results. Based on her Amazon bestselling book Delivering Bad News in Good Ways, you’ll get insight into why giving bad news is so tough, identify the tactics we use to avoid or delay giving it, and learn a process and tips to prepare for and manage the discussion with stakeholders. Presenter: Alison Sigmon is a longtime PMP certified project manager, clinical therapist, and business executive. She has co-founded or worked with several startup companies in the digital space. Companies and organizations around the world have relied on her expertise to train, facilitate, consult with, and coach tens of thousands of people. She has won several awards for her leadership and training efforts. She has led projects for the following: software and user experience design; digital content strategy; brand design and development; marketing, advertising, and communications strategy; business development and fundraising; video design and production; and ecommerce. Her efforts focus on the behavioral side of project management and relationships. Articles, presentations, and training materials can be found at several noted digital and traditional publications and her website at Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is Alison’s first book, and the first in a series on the subject. An avid distance runner, writer, hiker, and traveler, Alison is a Gulf War veteran. Contact/Social Media: Website: alison@alisonsigmon.comLinkedIn: Twitter: @alisonsigmonFacebook: Have you watched this webinar recording? Tell MPUG viewers what you think! [WPCR_INSERT]

How to Tell Stakeholders the Bad News

Maybe one of these situations sounds familiar… You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the new normal. After nearly a year of development on a technical system to integrate several disparate processes within finance, end user testing results show a very low usability and adoption rate. Power Skills is demanding a solution. Now.  The growth strategy your team implemented for your company’s new innovative product that, according to consumer research, will to take the marketplace by storm is failing badly. The project sponsor has mandated a complete change in direction but has cut your budget by 25 percent while accelerating your timeline. Today’s business climate requires agile, quick change to stay competitive. The speed, reach and consumer options now available demand that organizations be nimble and creative and able to adjust quickly to shifting market conditions. The upside of the ability to change on a dime is market edge. The downside? Agile, rapid change affects people, which can be perceived by stakeholders as bad, difficult or challenging. And what about the situations at the beginning of this post? They likely will be viewed as bad news to a team because it will require quick change on top of the other million other things they also need to do. Change allows organizations to re-invent themselves, move in new directions and recover from misfortune; but in the project trenches change is at risk for being viewed as a disturbance to their (and our) way of seeing and doing things. Large or small, change of any size makes an impact. And guess who is on the hook for breaking the bad news? Yep, that would be you, project manager. Learn more about this topic in the MPUG webinar, “Delivering Bad News in Good Ways for Your Project,” available on-demand. So let’s consider this. When giving and receiving news about change, how do you and your project team members view it? As interruption to stability or the start of a journey? As a response to a disturbance or a path to innovation? As a problem or an opportunity? If you and the stakeholders tend to see change as a negative, then it will be tempting to postpone, avoid and stress about it. But the trees are still in the forest even if we’re not there to see them. The bad news will still be there even when we don’t address it. And the longer your response is put off, the higher the risk that the situation will go off the rails. Three Steps for Delivering Bad News When you have to deliver bad news to stakeholders, it’s important to prepare for it because of the likely emotional impact. In my book, Delivering Bad News in Good Ways, I describe a three-step method for turning difficult conversations into purposeful dialogue, positive outcomes and focused results. The “SED Method,” as I call it, is a process I’ve created over the years while working with companies and government agencies around the world. SED: Separate, Evaluate and Deliver Before jumping into delivering bad news, we must separate the people from the problem, which is similar to the principle noted in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the masterful book by Roger Fisher and William Ury. However, it’s a little trickier when it comes to delivering bad news. Project support is driven from some level of emotional investment. Contrary to popular belief and supported by research there is a point when the paycheck is not what compels us to do our best in our work. Whether we are driven to help others, innovate, learn a new skill, collaborate or get recognition, these things are fueled by emotional investment. With studies from groups such as Gallup, we’re learning that intrinsic rewards (personal interest, enjoyment of a task and learning growth) are a much stronger motivator in the workplace than extrinsic rewards (pay, benefits or stock options). Whatever the motivation, every project manager hopes to have that intrinsic, high level of passion and commitment on their team — but it comes with a price: The higher the emotional investment people have in the project, the harder time they’ll have bouncing back from bad news about it. Why is it so hard for stakeholders to get past “bad” and just get the work done? The globalization paradigm means information can move 15,000 miles instantly. That means people are hit with roughly 11 billion bits of information at once. Of that we have awareness of about 40 of them, but our capacity to process the information deeply is limited to around seven bits. It’s this limited capacity that creates a cognitive load paradigm — an inability to adapt to change as rapidly as technology. The net-net is that it takes time for people to adapt to the change that companies need for projects to be delivered quickly. When the team is in synch, excited and feeling empowered and the sky is the limit and energy and enthusiasm are running high, it is clear that the heads and hearts of the stakeholders are engaged. While we want that, the old cliché comes to mind: “The higher it goes, the harder it falls.” Bad news for a team like this can make or break it. Prepping for delivering bad news The tipping point for how stakeholders respond to bad news is the way you assess, frame, and share it. That’s what we address with the SED Method, which stands for “separate,” “evaluate” and “deliver.” The separate step gives us a chance to investigate and collect the facts, opinions and details of the situation so we can act rather than react to challenging situations. The evaluate step gives us time to sort through that information, determine what’s relevant and identify options in preparation for delivery of the bad news to the receiver. It’s in this step that you have a chance to evaluate your feelings, assess the feelings of others and identify options. The deliver step helps to determine how best to craft and present the news in a way that can be heard. It also gut checks you on timing, materials and location. The “Talk” Preparing for the delivery of the bad news is the first step. The second step is the discussion that follows once you’ve share the bad news. The “talk” model outlined in the book gives you a brief process to follow to facilitate to next steps. When it comes to delivering bad news, most of us tend to avoid it like the plague. We sweep it under the rug and put off dealing with it, but it’s always there — an ugly, festering lump deepening stress with each day it’s not addressed. Facing up to bad news early and often is healthy for businesses, projects and life in general. As a project manager on the hook for facilitating and managing change related to your projects, the SED method offers a way to deliver bad news in a timely, thoughtful manner. Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is available in ebook and paperback through Amazon. A version of this article originally appeared on Alison Sigmon’s blog here. Have your own technique for delivering bad news to stakeholders or your project team? Share it with the MPUG community below. Image Source

Why Giving Bad News on Projects Can Literally Hurt

Over the years I’ve had a lot conversations with people -and quite a few experiences myself – with giving bad news. The general consensus seems to be that we all prefer a root canal without anesthesia over giving bad news. What is it about delivering bad news that makes it so tough? While everyone experiences such events differently, there is some science behind the struggle. So consider this Have you ever walked away from a major stakeholder meeting feeling confident everyone was aligned and enthusiastic about a new project only to learn later they hate the idea and are quietly withdrawing support even though you’re still on the hook for it? Ouch. Remember that time when you worked so hard on a proposal, project plan, design, or research paper, and it was ripped to shreds by others? Really??? How could they not see the brilliance you slaved to create? How did you feel when you had to tell a sponsor of a project or perhaps a loved one something you knew would likely throw the project, a team, or life into a tailspin? Need Ibuprofen and a bed. Now. We’ve all had professional and personal situations where we’ve had to give and receive bad news. Whether you are the giver or receiver of bad news, any sentient being will feel it and in some cases literally feel it. And its mostly likely to be felt as a rejection. I ran across a good article called Psychologists: Physical and Social Pain Hurts the Same Way which looks at how social rejection can be experienced like physical pain. Most people can vividly recount moments as children and adults where they experienced rejection or what was perceived as rejection. The pain associated with those experiences can be so intense and deeply felt that the person may now have an ineffective technique when giving bad news or may simply avoid doing it at all. Researchers found that people who are more sensitive to physical pain typically experience social pain and rejection more acutely. And to add yet another twist to the findings, when these people were given Tylenol for three weeks, they experienced less emotional pain. It didnt say if giving or receiving bad news got any easier. I imagine that part doesnt change. Its just how we cope with it internally and how we manage it with others. To understand why giving bad news can be difficult, ask yourself a few things: Once we have insight into why we respond as we do (stomach ache, headache, anger, mean words, blame, defensiveness, withdrawal, freezing up, or pass it off to someone else), then we can get a grip on managing our internal response. This will then free us up to focus on finding solutions faster. While giving bad news will likely sting on some level no matter how aware and prepared you are, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the situation. With preparation, understanding, and focus, bad news does not have to be the end of the world but instead can be an opportunity once the dust settles. This article was first published on

Creating a Culture of Belonging on Project Teams

Just as politicians pay close attention and respond to the opinions of constituents, so must project managers when leading a project. For a project to be successfully delivered, it’s critical to get collective action from a group of people who may have very different interests. Easier said than done. Because team member opinions vary regarding the technical approach, structure, content, and outcome of the project, project managers may spend much more time communicating with team members than doing any another type of work in the project. The key to achieving collective action and creating a sense of belonging among team members is to engage them in playing an active role throughout the project. Team member opinions come with a host of beliefs, biases, attitudes, and positions. The first step in moving toward engaging team members is gaining insight into their Perception and Expectations. Spending time with team members, asking them questions, listening to their thoughts and experiences, and getting their perspective creates the opportunity to deepen their commitment and sense of belonging. It’s also important for project managers to understand that emotions and thoughts are close, interactive partners that need care and feeding throughout the project for team members to feel they are part of the process. Gaining understanding of their Perception and Expectations is a component of the second step which is The Exchange. Prior to The Exchange, project managers must carefully consider what needs to be accomplished to have time together considered well spent. Whether engaging team members to participate in solving a problem, giving advice, determining project direction, or brainstorming an approach, the following are simple steps to use during The Exchange that will give team members a deeper sense of belonging and being part of the project: Listen and probe with objective, reflective, and interpretive questions; paraphrase. Establish mutual agreement on the issue/opportunity. Collaborate to identify a solution. Determine the steps needed to implement the solution. For the first two steps to be effective, team members and project managers must commit to the third step of the process: Follow-through. It requires that project managers and team members assume accountability, make adjustments throughout the project, and ask for help as needed. Its also important to remember holding someone else accountable requires being accountable, which means doing what you say you’re going to do. Working to understand team member Perception and Expectations, using the steps of The Exchange, and practicing Follow-through create a sense of belonging, which supports the team acting in a collective manner. Its been said that people own what they help to create, and that means actively engaging team members at regular intervals to provide input and perspective. Consensus wont always be achieved, but if these steps are observed, a project team culture of belonging will be experienced within the team.  

Playing the Change Game – Project Managers as Change Agents

I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of clients in the technology, film, media, banking, and energy industries. Through those experiences I’ve had a first-hand view of the issues they encounter on their projects. On the surface it would seem that NONE of these companies have anything in common, but when you peel back the content of their respective projects, the common denominator becomes obvious. They all have a TON of projects, extremely LIMITED resources, global competition and financial PRESSURE, and rapid, chronically shifting CHANGE. Effective project management is challenging at the best of times, and adding these kinds of pressures and constraints makes it even more daunting but not impossible. It starts with helping others get comfortable with change. So guess what? That makes you, project managers, change agents. Getting on the same page Getting stakeholders aligned with and excited about the project vision can be challenging, and creating the stakeholder ownership needed to make the project happen takes time and consideration. It’s rare that stakeholders embrace the project vision with the same enthusiasm as the people who created the original concept, but it’s not impossible to realize. With behavior-based tools, techniques, and some patience and understanding, a project manager can create a compelling story of why it is important to the business and what it will produce. What change means The completion of a project usually guarantees that someone somewhere is going to have to do something different from what they’ve done previously, which means a change is going to occur. Historically, stakeholders are slow to warm to change, and it’s crucial to understand that when leading a project, project managers are leading change. This obviously puts you, project manager, into a catch-22 situation. When the problem or opportunity to be addressed by the project, sense of purpose for the effort, and indicators of success are not clearly understood among stakeholders, considerable time and energy can be wasted. This can result in personality conflicts that are actually unresolved conflicts over what is supposed to be accomplished. Using the following tips can help stakeholders feel less resistant to the change and create understanding and purpose quickly. Change with context Use tools to facilitate involvement and ownership to the outcome. When meeting with stakeholders, start with the problem or opportunity that created the need for the project: create context for the current state. Help stakeholders see the advantage to the business to leverage the opportunity or to address the problem through exploring the conditions that generated it. Use a simple process to promote quick understanding and purpose. The story about the business situation and ensuing change should light up the hearts of the people who will work on and pay for the project. Involve stakeholders throughout the project so they can participate in shaping and defining the change the project will create. They will be more likely to “own” it. Use group facilitation tools like Affinity Process, Scope Facilitation Technique, and Force Field Analysis to help align their assumptions. Create the project story through storyboarding. Doing this well throughout the project will build clarity and commitment among stakeholders and create an agreement that can serve as a “stake in the ground” or common reference point when disagreements crop up. Effect change by generating awareness so get them involved early and often. Get the the right people involved at the right time. Understand and manage stakeholder expectations by determining if the project objectives are in conflict with stakeholder objectives. Get on the same page with nomenclature and acronyms – inconsistencies with these are a time killer and generate frustration for all involved. Be present. Ask questions. Listen. Facilitate. This is a behavioral activity not a technical one.   Being a change agent involves helping stakeholders see the strategic value of the project. It’s getting them involved early and often and using tools to get them engaged, ensuring expectations are aligned and reaffirming commitment and ownership throughout the project.