Coaching of Project Managers

Previously, I have written about coaching skills for project managers, and in that article I said I would return to the topic of coaching of project managers.

I am a strong advocate of coaching as a way of developing and improving skills in general, and project management in particular. It seems to me, and I’ve seen plenty of successful examples to support my view, that project managers like to work on developing their skills, and coaching provides an excellent mechanism to make it happen. In this context I’m talking about a formal peer-coaching relationship, where the project manager works with an assigned coach – who is normally a more experienced project manager – over a period of some months, in order to achieve a predefined objective.

Before I get into more detail, let me add a caveat that I am not a qualified coach; I am that most dangerous of compromises: an enthusiastic amateur. I have been a coach (many times over) and a coachee, trained coaches, and designed and operated coaching schemes. Wherever possible I have done so with the support, advice and assistance of coaching specialists, some of whom I have named in the “credits” at the end of the article.

What is coaching for?

Coaching should always have a purpose. In the realm of project management, this could be:

  • so that a project manager can get to the next level of performance in the profession, perhaps as part of an accreditation scheme
  • to support a career transition, for example someone moving into project management for the first time
  • to address and overcome a specific (perceived) weakness, for example communications skills
  • as an extra level of support to a particularly critical project

I didn’t just pluck these examples out of the air; they are all real situations where coaching has helped. The last on the list – project support – is slightly different to the others in that the focus is the project rather than the project manager. If the PM were to be changed, then the coach would stay with the project, and work with the new PM (in contrast to the other situations, where the coach would normally move with the PM).

The model of coaching that I advocate is non-directive, which literally means that the coach does not tell the coachee what to do. Instead they help the PM to find their own solutions, through a structured process of exploring options and deciding the best course of action. In the case of an experienced PM coaching a less experienced PM, it is natural that the coach will want to introduce some of their own experience and knowledge, but this must always be offered as an option to explore rather than an instruction to follow.

Establishing a Coaching Scheme

Let’s say you are responsible for a corporate group (or department) of project managers. What do you need to do to establish a coaching scheme?

  1. Define the purpose of the scheme. What are you trying to achieve? It might be one or more of: improving PM skills, improving project delivery, improving morale, improving staff retention, developing staff to the next level of competence.
  2. Design the parameters of the scheme. Who are the target coachees (and how many)? What is the likely duration per coachee? How much time is required per coach (in hours per week)?
  3. Establish the guidelines for the scheme: “ground rules” for coaches (including confidentiality), point-of-support for coaches if they run into difficulty, outline coaching contract (which is the agreement between a coach and coachee).
  4. Recruit coaches. If you operate a Community Service scheme, this is an obvious place to start. Also, if there are other departments that also employ project managers, consider extending the scheme in a cross-functional way.
  5. Train coaches. How much is enough? A “home brew” half-day internal session is about the minimum to explain the basic theory and get some practice, and I’ve trained many PM coaches this way. Far better, if you’ve got the time and budget, is to employ a professional coaching trainer – and suitable courses can be anything from a day or two up to extended courses with a professional qualification over several months.
  6. Implement – monitor – and observe the benefits.


Here are some of the experts who helped shape my approach to coaching:



By |2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00November 8th, 2013|Project Management|1 Comment

The Project Management Handbook

Many organisations adopt a “PM Methodology”, often without giving enough thought to what that means or how it is documented and published.

My working definition is: “How we do things around here”. It is the what and how of applied project management, including the tools and templates, within a specific ecosystem.

A methodology needs to relate to an organisation’s environment, including the systems, processes and culture. What this means is that adopting an industry standard framework (Prince2, PMI, APM, ITIL, ISO21500, Scrum, etc) is all well and good, but it can never be sufficient. Someone needs to think through and explain to the PMs how to apply the framework in the specific organisational context.

How to do this? From the reader’s perspective (i.e. the PM), it needs to be:

  • Relevant and practical
  • Complete
  • Up-to-date
  • Easy to access and to use
  • All in one place, including processes, templates and links
  • Relevant to first-time users as well as to experienced practitioners

For the custodian of PM best practice, it needs to be easy and rapid to maintain.

In the bad old days, a PM Handbook was a physical document in a binder. Typically, these took many months to author, and then suffered a very slow and expensive update cycle, with perhaps a new iteration after a year. In practice they seldom survive beyond Version 2. Of course, a paper document can’t easily contain templates – so they were often accompanied by a CD or a website, which rather starts to defeat the purpose. Worst of all, handbooks in binders tend to be read once (at most) and then left on the shelf.

Intranet sites can be a good solution, the downside being that they are sometimes cumbersome to administer. But it is at least possible to document the process, attach templates, and provide links to related corporate tools.

A downloadable handbook is a workable solution. The main part of the handbook might be a Powerpoint or Visio document, and templates can be embedded. However it relies on users downloading the latest version periodically. It has the advantage that it can be used off-line, so the PM doesn’t need to have always-on internet access.

I have seen unsuccessful attempts at publishing PM methodology using a process management tool. Unfortunately most are not designed to be read by mere mortals; you have to be a trained process expert to decode the flow-chart symbols typical of these systems. So you end up with something loved by the process experts, but hated by the project managers.

However, there are business process tools that provide tidy and human-readable output. The best I’ve ever used is Tibco Nimbus, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this as a way to publish a PM handbook. Unfortunately it is intended as a top-down corporate tool and is a bit overkill, hence unlikely to be cost-justified just for project management purposes. But if it is available in your corporate environment, then definitely go ahead and make use of it.

I have recently come across Skore, which is a lightweight tool that is ideal for documenting a simple project management process, but without the sophistication of Nimbus. Here is a generic PM Handbook authored in Skore, including some simple templates (click the diagram to open the handbook in a new window).


pm handbook

This version can be used as it stands, but of course it has not been tailored to any organisation. It is now ready for additional context-specific detail and links, and additional levels of drill-down where needed. It would also be possible to adapt it to Prince2, APM, PMI or other methods and terminology.

The attributes of this PM Handbook are:

  • Uses the “Seven Essentials” structure
  • Templates can be found in context, within the process flow
  • Easy to access and navigate
  • Easy to maintain
  • Can be tailored to suit any organisation
By |2015-08-21T13:38:46+00:00November 1st, 2013|Project Management, Seven Essentials|1 Comment

What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon

One voice amongst many

One voice amongst many

I never wanted to be a project manager. At various times in my life, I have wanted to be an astronaut, a physicist, a programmer, a telecoms engineer, a telecoms manager, a product manager, a management consultant and a teacher. But never a project manager.

Like many in our profession, I am an accidental project manager. I just sort of stumbled into it unintentionally, only realising that I had become one when others started attaching the PM title to me.

Why, then, did I drift in this direction? What is it about project management that others recognised in me? (And I’m far from unique here; I think this is very much a shared experience.)

I like driving. I enjoy the act of planning and executing a route, and adapting as needed depending on traffic conditions. The discipline also appeals to me: driving is a skill that can be learnt, and developed. It helps to have a destination in mind, but even that isn’t essential; I’m happiest of all when driving round and round in circles on a track day. There is “best practice”, but there are also differing views on driving technique. On track, I enjoy trying different lines to find out what works best for me.

The analogy with project management should be obvious. There are those of us that enjoy the journey, and managing the journey, in and of itself. Having a clear destination is great – but what really matters to the project manager is finding the best way to get there. There are opportunities to try out new approaches, and to optimise the journey. Project management is a road movie. And having arrived safely (hopefully), project managers are immediately looking forward to the next trip. The journey is the important part: making things happen.

So that is what project management means to me. Project management is about making things happen, and project managers are people that like to make things happen.

Once I accepted the mantle of “project manager”, the next step was to look for best practice, start to try out alternatives, and accumulate the bits that seem to work for me. I have being doing this for around 10 years now, and the distillation has been The Seven Essentials, which you can read about on this blog. Very little of The Seven Essentials is truly original, of course. It is mostly borrowed (some would say stolen) from the best practice of colleagues, consultants and experts that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over the years, as well as some input from Prince2, PMI PMBOK and other recognised standards.

The fun part is that project management best practice can never be complete. There are always new challenges, new approaches, new tools and technologies. So I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Every project has its “what can I learn from this?” moments.

That is why I am excited about participating in #pmFlashBlog. It has been a challenge to write this article. As a “sermon”, it is perhaps more personal and soul-searching than my usual style. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to read all the other contributions, which surely will provide new and thought-provoking themes to explore in the pursuit of project management excellence.


This article is my contribution to the #pmFlashBlog event, in which over 7(and counting) PM bloggers will publish simultaneously at 01:00 GMT on 25 September 2013, on the same topic: “What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon”

By |2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00September 25th, 2013|Project Management|Comments Off on What does project management mean to me – a Project Manager’s sermon

Between the Mountains and the Clouds


I have been invited to present a bar camp session at the Thomson Reuters London PM UnConference 2013.  The topic is “soft skills”. If you are planning to attend my session and it hasn’t happened yet, please stop reading now, as there are spoilers below!

The topic was selected from a list of topics that had been requested by invitees. I am rather intrigued to know why it was suggested, and what on earth they hope to gain from the session. Surely nobody expects to learn soft skills in 30 minutes? If so, they’re going to be disappointed!

What are soft skills?

It’s a vague and fluffy term, and I intend to keep it that way. Some dislike calling it that, and I have heard “intrinsic skills” offered as an alternative – which I understand to mean the skills that are within us. “People skills” is another option.

It might be easier to define what it is not. It is not the “hard skills” of project planning, progress tracking and reporting – which is what many people think project management is all about. But practitioners with any experience know that project management is a whole lot more than that.

Why is it important?

Let’s look at The Seven Essentials, and consider the hardness or softness of each. I’m going to borrow the Mohs Scale, which is, of course, an appropriate way to measure hardness. It goes from very soft (1 – Talc) to very hard (10 – Diamond).

Benefits tend to be hard business targets “achieve revenue of xx”, “reduce cost of operation by yy”, but may – or rather, should – also have a soft element such as “improve customer satisfaction by zz”. Hardness: 7.

Scope and Quality also tend to be defined in hard business language: “implement this new system”, but for change projects might encompass soft elements: “reorganise this department, and improve staff morale”. Hardness: 6.

Stakeholders and Communications are strongly soft factors, since we are dealing with human beings and their aspirations. Hardness: 2.

Plan. A traditional project management skill, and can be largely mechanical. Needs just a smattering of people skills to gain buy-in. Hardness: 9

Team. Entirely about getting the best out of people. Plenty of talc needed. Hardness: 1

Suppliers are people too, so a mix of soft and hard skills are called for. Negotiation is often a surprisingly soft skill, with a hard edge (“Speak softly, and carry a big stick” – Theodore Roosevelt). Hardness: 5

Risks arise from all sources in and around the project. When things go wrong, it is often a communications and/or human problem at the core. Hardness: 4

The point I’m trying to illustrate is that most of what a good project manager does relies on soft skills.

How do I acquire these skills?

When project managers become project managers, they often start by taking a course and a qualification. That is all well and good, but the focus of these accreditations (including PMI, Prince2, APM and IPMA) tends to be hard skills. There is some soft skill content – notably in stakeholder management – and there is recognition of the importance of communications skills, but don’t expect to acquire any of these through a qualification-oriented project management course.

Some trainers incorporate excellent soft skill content in their project management courses, but they don’t tend to be the ones that are built around PM qualifications. If anyone is looking for a more holistic approach, I would be happy to recommend one or two training partners that I have worked with in the past.

Instead, if it is training you need, then look to more general management training topics, such as:

  • Leadership skills
  • People (or team) management
  • Communications skills (which should be wider than just presentation skills)
  • Coaching (or Executive Coaching)

For further inspiration, there are some excellent blogs and twitter feeds worth following. I particularly enjoy:

  • Blogramme by Ian Webster (@IanWebster) – an experienced project manager, who speaks from the heart and from experience
  • Joining the Dots by Anthony Allinson (@allinsona) – a senior manager at Thomson Reuters, who knows far too much about the human aspects of project management
  • Sir John Whitmore’s twitter feed – @PCIntl – for an occasional reminder of the power of asking the right question

…and of course if you are reading this, then you already know about the Q2 Associates blog.

Finally, the best way to develop your soft skills is to get some practice. Stop reading this blog, step away from MS Project, and go and talk to your team!

Here is a link to the presentation material from my Thomson Reuters session:
By |2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00September 4th, 2013|Project Management|Comments Off on Between the Mountains and the Clouds

Project Start-up Meetings

You know what they say about first impressions? Good. I won’t bother repeating it, then.

For a Project Manager, the Project Start-up Meeting is that chance to make a positive first impression with the team. So it is perhaps surprising how often PMs just seem to “wing it”, without really having thought about the objectives, purpose and process of the meeting. Even worse, some PMs simply don’t seem to bother… which rather sets the tone for the rest of the project.

In response, I offer you this five-minute guide.

The Start-up Meeting is an opportunity to:

  • Ensure everyone understands the purpose of the project. The “big picture”, if you like.
  • Gain commitment and ownership from the team, by involving them in thinking through the process and outcomes.
  • Work through and overcome perceived objections and obstacles.
  • Establish ground rules and working relationships.
  • Display and promote the project manager’s leadership abilities.
  • Build a team, and have a bit of fun.

Depending on the size of the project, the Start-up Meeting can vary in size from a 1-2 hour meeting for the project team, through to a 1-2 day off-site workshop involving core team, extended team, internal and external suppliers, facilitators, etc.

Even for small projects, the meeting should always be held face-to-face (not a telco) to establish intra-team relationships and trust.

Naturally, I recommend applying The Seven Essentials as the basis for an agenda.

  1. Business Benefits. Invite the Project Owner to introduce the vision driving the project, and ideally link it to corporate strategy and objectives. A good Project Owner should be able to do this with passion and enthusiasm, motivating the team to deliver to the best of their abilities, and setting the mood for rest of the meeting.

  2. Scope and Quality. During project initiation, the Project Manager will have established the project’s deliverables, defined to a greater or lesser degree of detail depending on the circumstances. Now is the time to introduce this to the team, examining the definition of Scope, and ensuring a common understanding. Where there is uncertainty or ambiguity, this needs to be explored and understood. Quality requirements also need to be defined. Is a “beta release” approach allowed — with known omissions or faults? Or perhaps there are safety or security requirements that are absolute.

  3. Stakeholders and Communications. Again, the PM will have established an initial view during initiation. The Start-up Meeting provides an opportunity to review and possibly update the Stakeholder list and Communications plan. In particular, ensure that the team is understands and is comfortable with the communications that they can expect to receive, and also that they are committed to the communications that they are expected to provide (e.g. reporting deadlines).

  4. Plan. At least some of the team should have been involved in planning activities already. Now introduce it to the full team, and have them work through their own part to ensure full understanding and commitment. New information may come to light — don’t forget to ask about holiday commitments — so don’t be afraid to update the plan accordingly. Ensure that all activities have a clear owner. Check that appropriate contingency has been built in (based on past experience), and that dependencies are mapped and understood.

  5. Team. Is the team complete? Are there any gaps? Does the team feel empowered, capable and confident of delivering? If not, what needs to be done about it: perhaps additional skills or resource, specialist input, training? The Start-up Meeting also provides the opportunity to start building a high-performing team, particularly important if these individuals have not worked together before. Within the constraints of company culture and available budget, now is a good time to work in some team-building activities. Try to have some fun!

  6. Suppliers. If possible, include the major suppliers (internal and external) in the Start-up Meeting. They are part of the extended team, and are critical to the project success. Make sure they understand what is expected of them, and why the team relies on them. Understand their constraints, and give them ample opportunity to explain what they need from the team, why, and when.

  7. Risks. Reviewing risks should be a regular team activity, and the Start-up Meeting is the first iteration. Work through the risk register, add new risks as perceived by the team – and retire any that are no longer relevant. Review mitigation actions and assign owners. Review contingency plans.

A well-planned Start-up Meeting gets the project off to a good start, not just in terms of the mechanics of the project (the plan, the tasks, the responsibilities), but also setting the mood and atmosphere – hopefully one of cooperation, enthusiasm, openness and commitment. You should aim to spend enough time speaking to establish authority and leadership, and to spend even more time listening and questioning.

By |2015-08-19T10:54:45+00:00June 7th, 2013|Project Management, Seven Essentials|Comments Off on Project Start-up Meetings