Lessons from Startup Failures Can Help Your Project

An article on what leads startups to fail has valuable information for project managers. A lot of the problems are similar and can be addressed to keep your project on track.

At TechTarget.com, Bryan Barringer says the one are most linked to startup and small business failure is a gradual loss of focus. Taking your eye off the prize, so to speak.

Barringer is an independent enterprise mobility consultant and speaker, specializing in mobility, user adoption, UX/UI design, customer acquisition, product design/management and strategy and business development. He writes, “There are numerous reasons that can cause fledgling businesses to lose sight of the end game, but without a solid course correction, all eventually result in the same outcome. When focus is lost, the end is inevitable.”

Focus – it’s one of my most difficult tasks as a columnist. It’s lead me to seek help from apps to minimize distractions and keep me on task. Without a computer nanny, my focus would be abysmal.

As Barringer says, startups, just like projects overseen by project managers, typically begin with a solid plan. In a startup, investors are involved while in a typical project (that isn’t a startup) stakeholders have to be invested in a project for it to succeed. Those stakeholders don’t so much invest their own capital as invest their company’s resources to the project.

Too much passion can bring down a startup and a project. Granted, it’s personal passion that sometimes gets a project off the ground but it can also bring a project down. “You can become too passionate about an idea and lose focus on the critical steps needed to make it happen,” Barringer writes.

Maybe passion isn’t going to bring your project down but it could derail it. It’s as simple as people claiming emergencies that take precedent over everything else. It’s the old, “It has to be done now” plea too often heard. You find yourself giving into these people because they are so passionate in their concerns.

Too many visions can also spoil a deal, Barringer observes. It’s the same problem in project management. Ultimately, there needs to be one centralized view of how things are going to be accomplished. Otherwise a project can be killed by a thousand small cuts. It’s important to be assertive in what is the right view.

Does that mean you don’t list to others’ viewpoints? Not at all because then you lose support for your project. It just means you need to be the one who handles the overall view and direction.

Earlier I talked about how startups have investors and projects have stakeholders. Both are going to eventually become impatient for results. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how long they have been patient. A sudden whim could sink your project.

A friend of mine was in the jewelry business for many years. Frankly, he could have used a good project manager over the course of his retail business, but he limped along. Suddenly, after moving to a new location, a major investor called her note. My friend wasn’t prepared and had to shutter his shop. He hadn’t met the investor’s needs and paid the price. The same is true with your stakeholders. Keep them informed and keep them happy.

Barringer’s advice on startups is appropriate for project management. When you start your project or your startup, make sure you have that clear vision statement. “One sentence or a few words that best describes the prize at the end of this race. I write it down on a small card and carry it with me wherever I go,” he writes.

Basically, it comes down to having an elevator pitch for your project. (That’s a statement that can be given in the time it takes to ride an elevator.) Memorize that pitch so you can easily define your mission for your team and your stakeholders.

Here’s an out-of-the-box idea: make that elevator pitch your screen saver on your computer. Think how helpful it could be to have it right there in front of you every time you log onto your computer. It’s just one way your project could succeed.

Do You Have Good Feedback Skills?

There’s a basic tenet of project management that is often overlooked: feedback skills. If you can’t communicate what is wrong or right with a project, you’re not a project manager. You’re just an ineffective leader with no communication skills.

Sorry was that too harsh? It could be considered negative feedback. Lynda Bourne is the managing director of Stakeholder Management Pty Ltd, a business focused on improving the capability of organizations to effectively manage their stakeholder relationships to the benefit of both the stakeholders and the organization’s projects.

In an article she wrote for PMHut.com, she states, “One of the key supervisory skills needed by every leader is the ability to give feedback to their team on individual performance. The reason is simple, if the team don’t know what you expect from them, you are unlikely to get the performance you need.”

Bourne goes onto discuss negative feedback, positive feedback and a mixture of both. She does an excellent job differentiating between feedback and motivation. You may think motivating an employee is the same as feedback. As she points out, “a highly motivated worker producing the ‘wrong thing’ quickly and efficiently has the potential to do more damage than an unmotivated worker producing very little.”

She said good leaders strive for a balanced team that is well motivated. They achieve this by knowing what’s expected of them and then doing it correctly.

Bourne says these are three types of feedback:

Positive reinforcement where you acknowledge good work.
Constructive feedback where you suggest improvement.
Negative feedback where you highlight unacceptable behavior.
Guess which feedback should be rarely used? That would be negative feedback. Bourne says, “The key with this type of feedback is focusing on the behavior not the person – you are dealing with an unacceptable behavior, not an unacceptable person.” Interestingly, that’s been a tenet of my religious beliefs: hate the sin, not the sinner.

An unusual perspective is offered on negative feedback, according to Bourne. She suggests it might make sense to quantify the feedback. What that means is using it sparingly – no more than on a ratio of 5 to 1.

Yet at the same time she says not to bottle in negative feedback. It needs to be delivered immediately. That seems to suggest you can’t stick to strict ratios. Say someone screws up two times. Well, you can’t wait to criticize until the person does something right.

It’s important when giving negative feedback to do it with positive growth in mind. Bourne counsels, “The vast majority of your feedback should either be constructive feedback where you help someone improve or positive feedback where you reinforce desirable behaviors.”

If you can imagine, positive feedback can be a bad thing. As Bourne points out, it needs to be spread evenly among the team members so jealousy doesn’t spread. Of course, this means quantifying your feedback, which strikes me as wrong.

Constructive feedback appears to be the style most desired by project management team members. Bourne cites research that shows “57 percent of people preferred corrective feedback; compared to 43 percent who preferred praise/recognition. But how the feedback is delivered really matters 92 percent of the respondents agreed with the assertion, ‘Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance’.”

Bourne feels it’s important to start feedback with a compliment. She advises, “the key to having your suggestion/criticism listened to is to start with an honest compliment. One of the easiest is simply to say “Thank you for your hard work on this…” and then provide some feedback or even criticism immediately after.”

That runs counter to training I’ve read about. People tend to remember the last thing you said, not the first. My constructive feedback would be to say feedback should end with the compliment and then thank Bourne for her well-crafted advice.

Regardless of the placement of the compliment, I can agree with Bourne’s reasons for including a compliment with the feedback. It ultimately demonstrates you are supportive of a person’s contributions to your team. It doesn’t take much to say something nice.

Good Advice for Keeping Project Management Peace

Looking to keep the peace as a project manager? There are certain constituencies you need to work with to achieve that goal: your client, your staff, and, most importantly, yourself.

Margaret Meloni is a job coach and UCLA instructor with the goal of creating a group of successful individuals who bring humanity to the office and thrive because of it. To support her mission, she publishes a blog called, “Keeping the Peace.” As her website explains, “The common thread across her client base is the desire to experience peace at work and the recognition that peace is not absence of conflict, peace is the ability to cope with conflict.”

Well, she recently had three blog posts that are worth sharing because they focus on: an open letter to project management team members; an open letter to project managers; and, don’t forget to say thank you. Read to the bottom for a bonus post I couldn’t resist sharing.

Meloni raises good points in her letter to a project manager. Sometimes staff can’t work on your project because more important stakeholders demand their time. Those status reports you need? So do others. Why can’t you all come up with a similar template? (That last one’s probably not realistic because it would be like asking for one PM software platform. Ain’t gonna happen.)

The letter also has this excellent point. Employees don’t tell you their problems to be heard. They want you to solve them. Sure, it’s important to be a good listener, but there better be some action taken when they are done talking.

OK, so it’s only fair to provide the perspective of the project manager. His or her letter would include these points. Don’t say a project is underway if you haven’t started it. That project is 0 percent complete as Meloni points out. Be honest.

Speak up when you see problems coming up. No project manager likes to hear after the fact that you were prescient. That’s the equivalent of saying, “I told you so” when you never told us anything to begin with.

Along those same lines, going to be late with a deadline? The time to tell us isn’t the day of the deadline. Be realistic. There are only so many hours in a day to get work done effectively. You’re not going to squeeze 16 hours of work into the next nine hours. You’re just not.

Also, if our management style isn’t working for you, tell us. Just like there isn’t a one-size fits all project management software, neither is there one failsafe management style. It could be as simple as telling us you don’t like afternoon meetings. Maybe emails work better for you than texts (or vice versa).

Saying thank you also can’t be overlooked (which reminds me, I have some Christmas thank yous I need to get out). As Meloni points out, when asked their favorite incentives in a study, employees listed number one as a spoken thank you from a manager and number two as a written thank you from a manager. Public praise ranked as number four.

Then she drops this bombshell from the study. “Despite this, 58% had never received personal thanks from their managers and 76% had never received written thanks and 81% rarely (and some never) received public praise,” she says.

The post I wanted to add has the tantalizing title, “How to appreciate a jerk.” It goes against most people’s natures to be nice to jerks but we all have to swallow our pride sometimes. Meloni has some good observations about dealing with jerks. First of all, some people are jerks just because they want to be – it has nothing to do with you.

One of the best ways to deal with a jerk is to kill them with kindness, Meloni suggests. She also says you need to learn to appreciate them and, hard as it is to believe, remember that somebody out there most likely loves them. In other words, you have to see the good in people and remember that everybody has struggles we don’t know about.

What would you put into a letter to your project management staff? What would you like to say to project managers? Comment below – but just don’t be a jerk. We’ll still treat you kindly but nothing says we can’t have a low professional opinion of you.

5 Tricks to Improve Team Communication

There are a lot of ways to measure your project success – e.g., client satisfaction, ROI, revenue, net profit, happy customers – but there is only one way to reach project success: communication. All of the aforementioned stuff is good, but none can be achieved without perfect team communication.
In fact, your project health is directly correlated with communication. One out of five projects fail due to poor communication.
To put it simply: If you and your team know exactly what they are doing, you are on the right track to achieve one (or all) of those success metrics. If not – well, you aren’t.
So, how do you achieve perfect team communication? Follow these five tips:
1. Encourage Participation
As the team leader, the project manager is more often than not responsible for any communication gaps inside the team. You need to make your employees feel like a part of something bigger – i.e., the team. Show them that their opinions always matter.
Encourage your team members to participate in discussions and share their opinions and viewpoints. Don’t let them just sit there, pretending to listen while actually thinking about lunch. Active discussion is the most efficient way to make sure your team members really care for the project, which will benefit the end result greatly.
2. Take the Time to Discuss
After people voice their opinions, you need to take the time to discuss them – both the good ideas and the bad. It’s especially important to explain clearly (and calmly) why something isn’t a good idea. If somebody feels enthusiastic and wants to help, but their input gets shot down without any explanation, their motivation is going to drop pretty quickly.
You may think that explanations are a waste of time, but you are very, very wrong. An hour or two of discussion will not hurt your project – but skipping that time will.
3. Consider Instant Messaging
Meetings aren’t the only place for project discussions. In fact, small issues almost always arise outside the confines of meetings, and these issues can usually be solved without summoning the whole team together. Instant messaging will help you and your team members get on top of those issues in the shortest amount of time possible.
4. Don’t Assume People Can Read Your Mind
This is perhaps the biggest communication mistake that project managers fall for. They assume that everybody has as much understanding about the project as they do, which isn’t always the case.
Make sure to clearly explain every step that has to be taken in detail and ask your team if they have any questions at the end. Also dedicate time to explaining anything unclear afterwards.
This might be time-consuming and tiring for you, but in the long run, it will help you get everyone on the same page and eliminate (or at least minimize) the chance of possible misunderstandings in future.
5. Hold One-on-One Meetings
This might be harder to pull off if you are working with a big team, but one-on-one meetings are a great way to see how each individual team member is doing. When there are a lot of people around, some of us may feel too shy to express our true thoughts and feelings. This can lead to some employees not sharing some damn good ideas that could really help you your project.
Devoting just a few minutes every once in a while to one-on-one meetings with each of your employees is a great way to strengthen bonds and encourage even the shiest team members to speak up.
(Bonus!) Use Appropriate Software
In the modern world, it makes no sense to rely entirely on Excel spreadsheets and in-person meetings to track and facilitate team communication. The business world is very dynamic, and your team needs to keep up with the pace or the industry – or else.
Project management software is designed specifically for project management purposes, and among other useful functions, it can improve team communication significantly. Whether you are a few miles away from your office or on another continent, the right software will allow you to close team communication gaps and save precious time.
Communication is somewhat different for every team. Some teams excel at it, while others struggle. As a project manager, it’s your job to find out more about your team members and look for ways to improve communication inside the team. This is your ideal route to successful projects.