Using a retreat to move your project forward

Before your imagination takes to you Cabo San Lucas or Jackson Hole, reel it in. I am not recommending a working retreat cloaked in the luxury of a vacation destination. Rather, I am suggesting that you consider holding a project planning retreat to facilitate getting your project off the ground. This is a retreat because I find that holding this type meeting off-site helps to focus participants on the topic at hand in a way that is difficult to do when next door or down the hall are distractions and opportunities to do just a bit of regular work.

Change the environment to change the behavior.
Find a location that is conveniently located with plenty of parking — no point in getting everyone stressed by traffic or getting lost before you even begin the meeting. Check out the site personally. Make sure the room you plan to use has space for white boards, screens and enough electrical outlets. Because this will be a working meeting, make sure you have a large table and comfortable chairs.

Work with the site staff to ensure that there will be food and drinks throughout the day. Don’t forget about those individuals on your team with food restrictions and accommodate their preferences. Here is a little secret I learned the hard way … check on bookings for large groups on the day you want to schedule your retreat … you see there was this cheerleader conference at a hotel where I attended a planning retreat … well, you can imagine.

Work with the staff at the meeting site to have the equipment you need available and setup. Keep the room for the entire day, even if you think you will be finished by 3:00 in the afternoon.

Getting ready
As project manager, you are in charge of the meeting. You want to reflect on your desired outcome and consider the most effective way to get there. Figure out who needs to attend the meeting in addition to project staff. Do you need someone to take notes? Should someone from the PMO or senior management come as an observer? Are you planning to invite customers or users?

Give all invitees ample warning to hold the date sacred on their calendars. Send reminders a few days before the meeting. If there is preparation that the attendees need to do, give them the time and materials at least one week before the meeting.

Create an agenda. Try to mix activities from listening to presenters to working in small problem-solving groups. Allow time for socializing if the team does not work in the same location or rarely has the chance to mingle. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the meeting to check everything and solve any problems.

Tell everyone to turn off cell phones and log out of email!!  These are two of the biggest issues with any meeting- but particularly when you are trying to focus on planning.

Keep the meeting focused and outcome oriented
Review the project objectives and schedule. Use a scenario or concept of operations to ensure that everyone works toward the same vision. For a large team, introduce the leads and support personnel. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, you may ask the leads to provide a more detailed overview of the tasks and schedule emphasizing the dependencies within and between tasks.

Once everyone is nodding and seems to have a common grasp of where the project is headed, the stage is set to work together on execution plans. This is a good time to break up into smaller, task-focused groups to take advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the team members. As project manager, you may know where you want and need to focus the small group’s attention. However, here are a few topics I have found that benefit from sharing and discussion in a project planning meeting:

  • Operationalize vague requirements
  • Risk identification and triggers – you may not have thought of everything that could go wrong
  • Demonstrations – concept, possibilities, assets required, audience
  • Training needs – tools and processes
  • Drill down to detail planning for challenging problems
  • Resource constraints and conflicts
  • Experimental testing ideas for alternate technologies or approaches to reduce specific risks or tackle tough technical challenges
  • Barriers to success – leads to some ideas of how you can help smooth the way
  • Productivity enhancement tools
  • Knowledge management and information sharing techniques

Limit breakout sessions to about an hour. Then have each subgroup present results and suggestions to the entire group. If questions arise that you cannot answer, make a note and find the information later then share answers with the team. Wrap up the meeting with a list of action items.

If you have suggestions of topics for a project planning off-site meeting, please share.

Picking a Project Manager Successor

Change happens. Perhaps an opportunity arises that enhances your career on another larger project, in a PMO position or as a portfolio manager — or something outside of your control places you a position of needing to find a successor. I hope that you have more than a few minutes to make a decision this critical to the success of the project. Keep the thought in the back of your mind from the beginning of the project.

Question 1: Should the next project manager come from the project staff?
Of course, that depends. You may have a go-to person on the project who wants to move into management and you believe qualifies through knowledge and personality to lead the project the rest of the way. Or not. All things being equal, promoting from within is good because it motivates people by showing that promotion is possible if they stick with the organization. However, there are challenges to moving from one-of-the-guys to project manager. The role and responsibilities differ significantly.

Question 2: What skills and traits are essential in a project manager?
I have talked about the skills and traits of good project managers in one way or another in most of my posts. Picking just a couple examples, you may want to check out The Ethical Project Manager and The Accidental Project Manager. To answer question 2, I suggest just a couple traits the absence of which spell disaster for a project.

  • Able to listen and communicate effectively. Although just understanding and doing is enough for an individual contributor, it is not nearly enough communication ability for a project manager.
  • Sees himself or herself as a potential manager. As you know from experience, being a project manager requires the mindset that you are in charge and you are responsible.
  • Respects stakeholders – all of them.

Question 3:  What training opportunities should potential PMs be given?
Since as a forward thinking PM, you have considered the possible need to recommend a successor before the event actually happens, you need to recommend training opportunities and growth experiences for potential candidates. Formal training in PMBOK certainly provides an overview of the responsibilities of a project manager.  Your role as a “coach” is to help with your team members’ development.  This should include basic training project management as well as tools like MS Project.  IN an earlier post I gave some ideas for training (PMs – No Time for Learning).

Question 4: How can you mentor potential PMs?
One activity I have found useful is to let my potential successor attend meetings on my behalf. I meet with them before the meeting, ask questions about what they expect and what they want to do, review any presentation materials, and clue them in to any traps. After the meeting, we meet again and I listen to their observations and summary of events.  Also let them assist in updating project artifacts (Progress, status, risks, issues, etc.).  And meet with them regularly to help as a mentor.

When appropriate, I also give candidates opportunities to manage special projects under my direction. These activities may be related to the current project work, they may be a risk-reduction experiment or even a company sponsored task. I want to see how they handle being in charge even on a small effort before I recommend them for project manager.

I try to spend some time with any potential manager reflecting on what is happening on the project from the perspective of management. I want to sensitize them to the many directions I am pulled because of stakeholders, contractors and senior management.

Question 5: How do you let go?
A project that has been your baby from the “get-go” stays with you. It is hard – sometimes very hard – to give up the reins of control. Make a transition plan, execute it and then, after you have done everything you can to prepare and select your successor, you have to walk away. That does not mean you cannot be contacted by your replacement if they have concerns or questions. It means that you wait, you do not initiate.

If you have other pearls of wisdom on selecting a PM successor, please share.

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