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Project Management for Beginners and Experts

Episode 399: Situational Project Management (Free)

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Oliver Lehmann
Oliver F. Lehmann, MSc., PMP

The one thing I really like about project management is how unpredictable my days can sometimes be. I come to the office in the morning with a clear plan of what we are going to do today, and then something happens.

Maybe something breaks, a critical resource is unexpectedly not available today, or -- even more normal -- the customer wants a change and he wants it now. I love this challenge, because as a project manager I now have to re-evaluate the situation and change my plans accordingly. That is situational project management.

However, there's more to situational project management than just responding with a knee-jerk reaction. These times demand situational awareness, skill and finesse from us project managers.

And so I’m very happy to welcome Oliver Lehmann (www.oliverlehmann.com -- www.linkedin.com/in/oliverlehmann/) who literally wrote the book on this topic. The book is called Situational Project Management the dynamics of success and failure.

PDU Tip

Most of this interview is on technical aspects, but a little over 15 minutes are on leadership topics. That is why you can claim 0.50 'technical' and 0.25 'leadership' PDUs.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to Episode #399. This is The Project Management Podcast™ at www.pm-podcast.com and I am Cornelius Fichtner.

The one thing I really like about project management is how unpredictable my days can sometimes be. I come to the office in the morning with a clear plan of what we are going to do today and then something happens. Maybe something breaks, critical resources, unexpectedly not available today, or even more normal, the custom of once a change and of course he wants it today. I love this challenge because as a project manager, I now have to reevaluate the situation and change my plans accordingly. That is situational project management.

If you are a project manager who wants to become PMP or PMI-ACP Certified then the easiest way to do so is with our sister Podcast --- The PM PrepCast or The Agile PrepCast and study for the exam by watching the in-depth exam prep video training from www.pm-prepcast.com.

However, there is more to situational project management than just responding with a knee jerk reaction. These times demand situational awareness skill and finesse from us project managers.

So I’m very happy to welcome Oliver Lehmann who literally wrote the book on this topic. The book is called “Situational Project Management – The Dynamics of Success and Failure”.

And now, please get situated. Enjoy the interview!

Podcast Interview

Female Voice: The Project Management Podcast's feature interview: Today with Oliver Lehmann, Project Management Trainer, Speaker, Coach and Author.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hallo, Oliver! [Ich heiße sie willkommen]

Oliver Lehmann: Hallo, Cornelius! [Schön dich zu sehen].

Cornelius Fichtner: So to begin, let’s define what we are going to be discussing in this interview. What is your definition of situational awareness?

Oliver Lehmann: Situational awareness builds on a very simple observation, the same tools, the same practices, the same behaviors, the same approaches that are successful. And when project situation may fail in another one. So we rely on simple best practices. They may sometimes match the situation and be the right thing to do and sometimes they lead into disaster. So we should always ask ourselves: Am I doing the right thing for the right situation, the right moment, the right environment, context in which we are, and so on…

Cornelius Fichtner: And then what do we mean by situational project management?

Oliver Lehmann: Situational project management begins with the same observation. The same thing that can lead to success. One project in a specific situation in a project may fail in another one but we want to a bit more than that. We want to understand what are the practices. What are the specific tools maybe? What are approaches that match a given situation?

If we understand the situation, we can select the right practices to manage this situation and my book tries to give some help in that. It has still some open questions there because I think we haven’t fully understood how situational project management in old situations works, but I think I can give help for many situations already based on some research together with group of experts based on my experience with over 20 years in project management training and before that over 12 years in practicing project management.

Cornelius Fichtner: And let me guess, if I’m not planning my project and I’m just improvising from moment to moment, that has nothing to do with situational project management, right?

Oliver Lehmann: It may have to do with that sometimes because you have situations where planning is impossible. Too much planning may be detrimental for your project because sometimes the way is made by walking. There are project situations where you cannot do a lot of planning. You just have to do the projects step by step and with each step, you make a new decision where to go to. You develop something and you invest development. You have some results and then you make new decisions based on these results and so on.

There are project situations where this is the right approach like driving in the fog with a car for instance. It’s a very similar situation. But then you have situations where you can look far into the future of your project like on the road where you can see a long distance ahead of you and you can do a lot of long-term plans and they can just come together. Sometimes it has to do with situational project management.

Cornelius Fichtner: Alright! So that’s situational awareness and situational project management. Are there any other related terms that we should be aware of before we get started?

Oliver Lehmann: Yeah! There is one term that I found very helpful here and I call it navigating between two monsters. I think project management in many dimensions is a process where we have something extreme on the right and something extreme on the left.

When you look into the future just the topic we just had, can I do a long term predictions or do I need to go for more Agile methods which work with the short-term decisions and sprints and these things. Navigating between two monsters means we start somewhere in the middle and from time to time we have to move more to the left, maybe to the Agile side. Another times more to the predictor side. So we should be able to adjust our behavior to that.

There are many other questions like: Do we need to make a strong stance in a given situation or is it better to be more soft and more acceptable what other people want from us? Do we need to be heroes and single fighters or are we more collaborative or more integrated in a group? And there are many other questions like navigating between two monsters means, rarely the good way to go is rarely the extreme way. We have to find a way somewhere in the middle between these extremes and sometimes more turn to one side or to the other side but balancing things out, that’s a big part in project management. And that’s something project managers should be able to do.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay and you’ve pretty much also answered my next question because I was going to ask you: Can you give me a few more examples of situations where we need awareness and situational project manager like I gave in the introduction. Do you have anything more for us? When do we really need it?

Oliver Lehmann: We need it all the time, first of all! I think project managements are situational. Most of us do this somehow. They are not doing this methodologically. They do it by inspiration and by emotions and by feelings and by experience and all those things, by instinct maybe, all the things that drive project managers and they know they have to adjust to given situations. But I have a very specific example just here in Germany, we had 2 major station projects, main station projects here in the last couple of years. One of those two was a great, great success. This was the Berlin Main Station.

And there was a second one some years later running into a deep trouble, deep crisis, which was the Stuttgart Main Station. And the interesting thing is, it was run by the same organization, the Deutsche Bahn German Railway. It was run by using the same approaches, the same method. It is the same deliverable more or less that it brings out. It even was the same project manager, a guy from Egypt. One project, he was extremely successful and then the other one, he ran the project into crisis. At one point in time, he had to leave the project, had to give up his position there. Another interesting question is what is different between those two projects which make one project successful and the other one a failure with the same approaches, with the same tools, the same methods and so on. So that is my favorite example.

To give you the answer for those two projects: The Berlin Main Station was a Greenfield project. It was the old death strip between East and West Berlin where they had a lot open space and just could build a station there without having to take too much care of stakeholders, of people living around.

Stuttgart was in the middle of a city. People living around, people afraid of their houses. This was where it started because they had to drill ton loads under occupied neighborhoods. In difficult geological areas and people are afraid of their houses on top. They wanted to talk with the project manager and he was not prepared to talk with them about their fears and the problem is always when you have a lot of stakeholders and you just ignore them, they will come back and they will bring their friends with them and they will bring loyals with them and this is exactly what happened there.

So the question is first of all: How can we understand the situational requirements on project managers which may be very different even if it seemingly all looks the same. And the other thing we need to understand is how do we need to adjust our approaches and our behaviors and the Stuttgart project and the crisis project, intensive stakeholder management would have been extremely important. It was not that important in Berlin.

Cornelius Fichtner: My next question is going into exactly the opposite side from situational awareness and situational project management. Do you have an example for us when we cannot be situational, where things are black and white and you just have to go one way or the other even as a very experienced project manager, situational project management does not apply in this situation?

Oliver Lehmann: There is one moment I think when you have to be very strict, very strong when we have no gray shade or something like that and that’s when it is about your professional integrity when it comes to questions of bribery of corruption, of discrimination of people based on gender, on skin color, religion or whatever it is. I think we have to be unsituational. I don’t know if such a word exist.

Cornelius Fichtner: No, sure, it does exist here.

Oliver Lehmann: We have to be very clear and very strict and very straight in these situations.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay! The companies that I worked for, they always had a clearly defined project management methodology and that methodology told me what to do and when to do it. What considerations do we project managers have to make before we deviate from the prescribed methodology?

Oliver Lehmann: First of all, I was a trainer for this kind of methodologies for many years. Before I started as a PMP trainer with PMP preparation as a main business, I helped companies as an external trainer to teach their new methodologies to their teams. I know these methodologies quite well. I know their strengths and I know their weaknesses.

There is one thing project managers have to take care of. These methodologies, if they are good methodologies, they provide a lot of support and a lot of help and make lives to some degree easier. But sometimes, they don’t really put the needs of the project.

I remember one case, there was a methodology in an organization which was developed for a project of a certain size, a typical size that they had in this organization and a project manager approached me and asked me: “Oliver, I can’t use this methodology that you trained to us. I cannot use it in a given project. Can you just come over and have a look at that?” And they picked me a day just to have a look at their project and it took me not even 5 minutes to agree with him because this project was far too big for the methodology. It was not scalable enough for such a project. And I told him: “Make a note, put it in your project documentation why you have to deviate from this methodology. You can say that you talked with me and that I agreed to you. At this very moment, you have a good explanation for that.”

Two days later, I got a very angry phone call from the PMO Manager of this organization: “How can you do that? We hired you. We pay you that you will help people use it or that you make people use the methodology but you cannot tell people to deviate from that.” We then had 10 minutes discussion on the details and the PMO had to agree: “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s right.” So you have to have a good explanation if you deviate from a methodology. But if you have that, as a project manager, your business and your profession is not to follow methodologies. It’s to deliver successful projects without destroying the organization.

Cornelius Fichtner: What about if we work in a controlled environment. For example, in healthcare business or in a bank or insurance where we have to follow externally-imposed regulations.

Oliver Lehmann: A, I don’t believe that outside of laboratories, there is such a thing as a controlled environment. Controlled environment is a glass tube. It’s in Chemistry or somewhere else.

The other thing is of course, you have to meet requirements and if you have legal requirements, if you have requirements from government agencies. Maybe also internal organizational requirements to meet then you have to meet them, that’s very simple.

If you have a deadline, you have to meet the deadline. If you have to have funding available then you at least have to try to do the project with the funding available and if you have to meet leader requirements, you cannot have a project against the law.

Cornelius Fichtner: Alright! You already mentioned best practices earlier on. Best practices many times, they are common sense recommendations that have helped many others before us to be successful in the past. When do we accept and when do we reject best practices for our project?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

Tags: PMP, PDUs: Technical Project Management, PDUs: Leadership, Situational Awareness

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