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5 tips for returning to work

As regular readers will know, I’ve been on maternity leave since January, working on The Parent Project. During that time I’ve still been blogging and writing for my Otobos clients on a part-time basis, supported by my wonderful family, and my new book, Shortcuts to Success, was published. But now it’s time to take it up a gear and get back to work properly.

Here are my 5 tips for returning to work as a project manager after maternity leave or a career break.

1. Arrange a handover

If you had someone cover for you while you have been away, make sure that you get a proper handover with that person. Don’t let your cover person leave too soon. Keeping your cover person on when you return to work is a cost for your company, so expect them to want you to do as short a handover as possible. However, two weeks is good, if you can negotiate it.

Use the handover time to get them to introduce you to any new project stakeholders or team members and to review the status of your projects.

2. Process your paperwork

Returning to work involves paperwork (doesn’t everything?). If you have worked your Keep In Touch days during maternity leave (in the UK you are entitled to 10 days of paid work without losing your maternity benefits – these are KIT days), then get your KIT paperwork in so you get paid.

Work out your holiday allocation as you’ll probably be returning part-way through the holiday year. If you were entitled to accrue holiday or to any paid leave during your time away, do the forms for that too.

Many people return to work part-time after maternity leave, so if this is a consideration for you, get your request for flexible working in as early as you can. This gives your manager plenty of time to review your case and make a decision about whether they can support your request for flexible working. Remember, in the UK your manager has an obligation to consider your request but they are not obliged to accept it.

3. Accept that your projects have moved on

As much as you’d like to slot right back in where you left off, that isn’t going to happen. Your projects have moved on, so accept it. Some of your projects may even have finished, and you could have missed out on the project closure or even the celebration!

That might leave you worrying about what you are going to work on next. You might be picking up a project in progress, or starting completely new work. Either way, you’ll have to get your head around the fact that your old project teams might not need you anymore.

4. Trust your skills

If you are returning from maternity leave, it can feel like a crisis of confidence. After all, you’ve been out of the workplace for anything up to a year (and in some countries it could be even longer). In that time some days your biggest achievement has been making sure everyone is up, washed, dressed and fed. How will you cope going back to the office? Will you remember your passwords? Or even your own phone number?

Trust your skills. For the last 9 months or so you’ve been project managing a family in transition. You can do your job – you have been doing it, albeit with different stakeholders. So chill. The office will have you back with open arms and you’ll fit right in.

5. Take it easy

Your priorities have changed. Whether it was a career break or maternity leave, you aren’t the same person that you were before you left. Whether you return to work full-time or part-time, be kind to yourself, your partner and your family. Take it easy and manage your return to work as a gradual transition.

What other tips do you have for people returning to work after a break? Let us know in the comments.

Linked at: How to Get Organized At Home


Effective Meetings: Reloaded

Guillermo Solis

Guillermo Solis

This is a guest post by Guillermo Solis.

Managing successful meetings is not a new subject, but neither is a waste of time to refresh ourselves about how best to manage meetings. Below I have some suggestions to bear in mind before, during and after meetings, when we are in charge of the meeting. These are based on experience mostly in Mexico and Central America projects.

1. Before the meeting

Objective. Define what the meeting is for and what we are expecting as a result: an agreement, approval, a work plan, etc. The meeting should start with a brief welcome and then the definition of the subject itself; it’s a powerful argument to keep the focus!

Participants. Who must and should be in the meeting? That’s enough people. Depending on the matters to deal with, we should consider inviting at least one member of the areas or departments involved (stakeholders), so that person can communicate to the others about what was said and how could affect them.

Notice. If it is possible, schedule the meeting with several days of notice, so we can give time to participants to check their agendas. If you can, it’s worth asking for their availability informally before sending the invitation. It’s not a guarantee of course but the possibility of the participants being in the meeting will be greater, and also the possibility to re-schedule will be smaller.

Agenda. Delineate the topics or issues to address in your notebook or/and the presentation. Assign a specific time to each item (and plan to have a clock in the meeting room). Always consider time for a Q&A session, and you can use this slot to deal more easily with interruptions – park any topics that upset the flow of the agenda to the Q&A.

The plan B. What if the projector fails? The meeting time is reduced half an hour? Or you have a last minute guest? It’s important to have in mind what could impact the meeting or your presentation and be ready to go in a different direction if necessary.

Time of the meeting. We all know the best time for a meeting is before lunch. If you schedule it for later, people’s attention will be diminished, attendees will be more tired, stressed, etc.

Place. Choose a place or location where everybody can arrive on time in a comfortable way. Consider ways to get to the venue, lighting, noise levels, availability of a projector, phone, etc.

Material. It is essential to have the necessary material. Check for the presentation twice (share it with someone else to see if it’s clear and easy to follow).

2. During the meeting

Welcome and agenda. Start on time, define the objective and agenda, but don’t wait more than 5 minutes for anyone who is late (respect the time of the rest of the attendees).

Questions, comments and detours. It’s always valid to answer questions and comments but if the agenda is too tight you can politely mention the Q&A section at the end. Try to be flexible and remember that meetings are not a monologue. However, try to avoid important detours that might compel your meeting into unnecessary delays.

Humor. Being serious is a way to call for respect, but if we don’t break the ice, the meeting will become dark and eerie. Sometimes a smart joke makes it easier to digest a hard subject, a delicate matter or the complex contents of your presentation.

Length. If you can make your meeting fit into an hour or less, that’s great, but if it goes beyond that, start taking 5 or 10 minute breaks to avoid stress or desperation!

3. After the meeting

Meeting minutes/summary. Acknowledge the participation of all the attendees when sending the summary as this gives importance to the meeting and shows you respect the time of the participants. You can use a pre-defined format for minutes or send out a summary via email. The format must include any decisions, a list of the participants (those who attended and those who sent apologies) and might suggest a date for the next meeting if necessary.

Cost of the meeting (aggressive approach to lack of attention). If you experienced a lack of people turning up for the meeting (or the wrong people turning up), or a lack of action as a result of the meeting, you could use this aggressive strategy: estimate the cost of the meeting. If the required data is available and you are confident using it, then calculate the estimated cost of the meeting. Work it out based on the time the participants invested in it, and talk to your project sponsor about it. It’s an effective way to make a point (although a little bit aggressive): we’ve lost time and money with this meeting because no one paid attention.

Follow-up. The meeting does not end when everyone goes back to their job. If you have proper follow-up and the result of the meeting is productive, than we can say that we had a really effective meeting!

It’s hard to have 100% effective meetings all the time, but with practice these tips will help you to forge habits that allows you to have a high effectively (and credible) average when you have to chair a meeting.

About the author: Guillermo Solis has over 10 years of experience in the IT area, resulting from support areas, development and management. In recent years he has worked as a project and resources manager in Mexico and Central America.


5 Tips for making better decisions every day

Ben Ferris

Ben Ferris

This is a guest post by Ben Ferris.

The decisions you make every single day on your projects will greatly affect the eventual outcome of them. This means that if you can learn to make better decisions then you should expect to run more successful projects. It sounds really simple and to be honest most of the best tips I have come across are pretty straightforward once you think about them.

1. Give yourself time

Making a decision under a lot of time pressure is one of the surest ways of getting it wrong. I think it is safe to say that most of us think better when we have a few minutes of peace and quiet to consider the facts. In fact, a lot of the time you will come to a better decision if you sleep on the matter before giving your opinion. There are very few situations you will come across in your project management career where you will need to make a snap decision without being able to think it over. You should therefore avoid rushing into your decisions and instead take your time to get them right instead of simply getting them out of the way quickly.

2. Get all the facts

Another common mistake made by under pressure project managers is to make their decisions without being aware of all of the facts. If you do this then the only way you can expect to get the right conclusion is through sheer luck. Probably the most important step in your decision making process is that of doing your fact finding and working out what it is all about. This is a part of the process which it is easy to rush past but if you want to get it right then you will want to spend sufficient time on this stage before you even start to consider what your options are for the final decision. You might even find that once you have all of the facts the decision becomes a lot easier than you thought it was going to be.

3. Think of the consequences

One of the other points which it is easy to overlook is that of the consequences of your decision. For example, will it lead to you needing more budget or more team members or will it result in a change to the project plan? There are often a number of different follow-on effects to consider before you go ahead and act on your decision. You might need to organize a workshop or at least seek the expert opinions of others before you can safely state what the consequences of your decision could be.

4. Seek other opinions

The last point mentioned looking for other opinions and this is something worth bearing in mind in other circumstances as well. What can sometimes happen is that you end up being too close to the project and therefore can’t see the wood for the trees. If you go and get the opinion of someone who is a bit more distant from the piece of work then you might be surprised by the different perspective they can offer you. If you are very lucky you might find that you work close to someone who is an excellent sounding board and who can give you the advice you need at the right times. I used to work beside someone who met this description and he made my life a whole lot easier. Best of all, he never imposed his opinions on me or got involved without being asked. He just sat there listening to what was going on around him and then gave me some wise words whenever I asked him for advice.

5. Be flexible

Not every decision you need to make will require the same thought process, so you need to be sure to adopt a flexible approach which allows you to adapt your ideas to the situation. The project management world is one which requires you to be flexible anyway so you should soon get into the habit of being flexible. You should approach each decision in the way which best suits it. Personally I like to make out a list of the strengths and weaknesses of each potential decision but I know that this isn’t necessarily the best approach in every single case. Being flexible is all about knowing that you have the skills and experience to weigh up the situation and choose the right way forward even if it is completely different from the way you have done things in the past.

About the author: Ben Ferris has over a decade of project management experience and is the founder of Cobalt Project Manager, a web-based project management solution that helps teams successfully plan and manage projects. Read more on the Cobalt Project Manager Blog.


Overcoming bias in project management

Roland Hoffman

Roland Hoffman

This is a guest post by Roland Hoffmann.

A project manager is the lynchpin of a successful project. Her leadership and guidance is of paramount importance during planning and execution. Since good decision-making is critical for good leadership and guidance, project managers need to know how heuristics (mental disposition) and biases (personal inclinations) influence a project manager’s decisions. Therefore, effective project management training addresses these natural human variables to enhance traditional project management science.

Three types of heuristics

Heuristics are natural cognitive functions with risky implications for project managers. What appears as common sense is actually irrational decision-making, which can happen daily in a project manager’s life and limit her success. There are three types of heuristics.

Anchoring occurs when a project manager adjusts an estimate closer to a number she previously heard or saw. For example, she may not schedule the necessary two months for a task because the technician said, “Two weeks should do it!” Even if the project manager disbelieves the two-week estimate, she would be unlikely to stick to her two-month plan. If the technician had said, “We will need at least four months”, the project manager would likely schedule more than two months.

The availability heuristic is another irrational intuition, which implies that easily remembered information is most important. For example, if the project manager saw a car crash in the morning, she may later decide to pay for better insurance coverage for her team, even though the statistical likelihood of a car crash has not changed.

Finally, the representativeness heuristic can also affect projects. This occurs when people use representative association rather than factual analysis. For example, a project manager may not hire a genius who interviewed in a hoody, because she often sees a group of skateboarders in hoodies playing during working hours. The hoody unconsciously represents bad work habits, leading the project manager to not hire the candidate, even though she would have hired the candidate, if she only evaluated the candidate’s test results and qualifications.

More types of bias

Beyond these heuristics problems, project managers should learn to recognize framing, confirmation, and belief biases. A framing bias skews analytical objectivity. Another well-known experiment asked subjects to choose between saving 200 of 600 patients or losing two-thirds of the 600 patients. Naturally, almost everyone saved the 200 patients – even though the choices are mathematically identical. This bias may cause a project manager to under-charge a change because the sponsor framed the request accordingly.

A project manager with a doctorate may ignore the excellent advice of a laborer if she believes that college education is a prerequisite for good advice

Second, the confirmation bias prompts people to agree with evidence that confirms their prior decisions. For example, a smoker may trust statistically irrelevant studies that conclude that cigarettes are not harmful. A project manager with a confirmation bias could use a questionable report to justify polluting the environment, since she actually only wants confirmation that the containment cost she missed in her budget is unnecessary.

Third, a project manager should heed the belief bias. It distorts reality with long-standing beliefs that act as powerful, silent motivators. For instance, a project manager with a doctorate may ignore the excellent advice of a laborer if she believes that college education is a prerequisite for good advice, or a superstitious project manager may delay the project’s completion to avoid acceptance on Friday the 13th.

Mitigating against these challenges

Humans are normally unaware of biases and heuristics, and awareness requires training, skill, and experience. Project managers are particularly susceptible to consequences, because projects must succeed the first time and offer limited learning opportunity that does not end in failure.

Role play can help. For example, a trainer could assign stakeholder roles and secret objectives to students on a project management course who then complete a tense price negotiation. Afterwards, in a second exercise, students conduct a rigorous stakeholder analysis mitigates and realize that the tension was the result of anchoring heuristics.

To give another example, the project management trainer could demonstrate the framing bias with a procurement drill that has different pricing anchors, or discuss the duration variances from two distinctly-framed schedule instructions. This would convey formal procurement practices and schedule management concepts, but also exemplify the results of human nature. The result would instantly create experience and benefit real-world project scenarios.

Ultimately, project managers must learn how heuristics and biases can affect decisions through experience. The goal is not a project manager who questions every action and decision, but one who makes critical decisions with the use of due diligence to avoid human shortcomings. The performance improvements will bring real benefits to the individual and the organization.

About the author: Roland Hoffmann, who founded Hoffmann Conseho in 2007, has spent 20 years leading projects in technology, construction, marketing, operations and finance. His specialty is high-risk projects, where he prevents failure or helps projects to recover from failure. He has led project teams with over 70 people on four continents, has experienced spectacular successes and remarkable failures, and gleaned invaluable knowledge from each.

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