AMA’s Ask The Experts: Chia-Li Chien on Successfully Pivoting to Preserve Your Project

Published: Jul 20, 2020


By AMA Staff

AMA’s webcast series exploring a variety of relevant project management topics, with a special focus on virtual management. In How to Successfully Pivot to Preserve Your Project, AMA faculty member Chia-Li Chien, PhD, PMP, CFP, who is also an award-winning author, joined Ask the Experts host and AMA Learning Solutions Manager for Project Management, Dan Goeller.

Goeller began the discussion by posing the question, “Why is it so critical, especially now, for project managers to be able to pivot in order to preserve their projects?”

“That’s a very good question,” said Dr. Chien. “Businesses big and small are all making changes to remain flexible during this economic downturn. Our workforce has become more limited. Resources are limited and that could include skilled people, accessibility of systems and availability of assets. Future and existing projects may be put on hold, delayed or even cancelled. Project managers need to align with corporate strategies. The number one thing for project managers to do is to have that clear big picture from stakeholders and sponsors before changing a project’s scope. For example, I had an approved project that was on hold due to the pandemic, but instead of just jumping in and changing the project because of resource constraints, I had a collaboration meeting with one of the sponsors, and once we were aligned in terms of the short-term strategy of this particular company, we agreed upon a new path, no longer focusing just on the project but refocusing on the overall portfolio.”

Goeller observed that the term VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—is particularly relevant in the present circumstances, as companies do what they need to do in order to survive in the short term, but try to keep projects on track as much as possible. This, of course, means deciding which projects to go forward with, and when, and that means determining their relative importance. 

“Why is it important to prioritize plans?” asked Goeller.

“Strategies have shifted,” Chien replied. “As strategies change, your sponsor could potentially shift funding and resources, and focus on something far more important. Therefore, your projects also need prioritizing. Now that I know what my sponsor’s priorities are, then I know which parts of the project out of the entire portfolio need to stay as is, need to move on, or need to be cut, and so forth. As leaders, we need to focus not too much on the tactical portion of a project, but on getting that big picture and aligning it with the current strategies. That will help you prioritize resources, funding, and so on. So, that will help the company to achieve either short-term wins or long-term wins.”

Exactly where a project is in the pipeline—for example, if it’s close to completion or if it’s just getting started—is also important to consider, Goeller noted. Other considerations include such things as office politics that may have to be navigated if, for instance, people have “pet projects,” or projects that are of particular interest to their team. Also, sometimes certain projects are mandatory if they’re part of compliance efforts or federal regulations, and are therefore effectively out of one’s hands and have to remain a top priority. Sometimes a choice has to be made between a cost-cutting project or a revenue-generating project.

This led to Goeller’s next question: “All other things being equal, would you prefer to have a project moving forward that increases revenue, like bringing a new product to market, or that cuts costs, say something that’s quality-focused, so there are fewer complaints and returns?”

“I think that’s a question that depends on your own company’s situation,” Chien responded. “Depending upon the industry that you’re in, if you’re ‘sliding’ [economically], then definitely pay attention to the innovation of the product. This is obviously a great time for great products to be out there. Find out from your company if innovation is what they’re focusing on, or if they’re completely focused on cutting expenses.”

“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer there,” Goeller observed. 

In terms of prioritizing projects, Goeller elaborated by mentioning the use of frameworks to prioritize projects, and detailed some relevant skills covered in some of AMA’s project management courses, including thinking skills like critical thinking and strategic thinking.  

“There’s the AMA Critical Thinking Model with a three-phase approach, where you clarify the problem, formulate solutions, and then make sure there is contextual alignment,” Goeller mentioned as an example. “The general idea is to be objective about the problem, have data behind it, and use different techniques when formulating solutions—such as making diagrams to reason through and communicate project details—and to have organizational awareness so that any solution will align with the business and the industry as a whole. Managing relationships effectively, and understanding the risk tolerance of the decision makers, are also key considerations.

Goeller added that the Strategic Thinking Model (from AMA’s Strategic Thinking course) also has a three-step model that is similar to a Gap Analysis where you have a current state and you envision your future state, then build a path from “what is” to “what you want it to be.”
He further mentioned the STEEP Model which stands for social, technological, economic, ecological, and political considerations, and IP Matrices, or “Eisenhower” Matrix, where project managers weigh the importance of a project versus its performance to determine if it should be done now or can be done later. SWOP Analysis, which analyzes strengths and weakness, and SOAR Analysis are also very positive and future-thinking framework approaches, according to Goeller.

“When you’re in the field, Chia-Li, what are some of the frameworks you use to prioritize projects?” asked Goeller.

Chien responded, “Number one, your critical thinking skills, and number two, relationship building. It’s not just having tools. You need to be able to leverage those technical skills into your relationship building. You’re also showcasing your goals and expertise, and paving the way for your career objectives. A typical framework is to go back and look at your Triangle of Triple Constraints—your budget, your scope, your time. Which one is the priority today? You want to put on your critical thinking hat and think through and beyond what’s on the paper and beyond what the sponsors are telling you. I would say another key point is your communication skills. Your team needs to hear from you. Take some time to take your team through the changes in your company’s strategy and how it impacts the project they’re working on.” 

She also mentioned that team members need to know they should be realistic about the time they spend on a project, since the tendency in working virtually is to work too much, and that can be counterproductive to project success. In addition, be mindful of balancing the technical skills with the soft skills, especially communication.

Goeller noted that even when plans have been prioritized, project managers may encounter the reality that the plug may still need to be pulled on certain projects, and asked Chien how to go about doing so.

In response, she mentioned that there are methodologies for this in certain AMA project management courses. An approach she considers most important is The Project Closure Checklist, saying, “How to pull the plug is not necessarily just [up to] you. The closure checklist includes getting your sponsor to agree that the project needs to be cancelled, and have documentation in place. Maybe the project had already produced some deliverable, so that also needs to be documented and communicated back to the sponsors.” 

Chien added that even if a project was already approved, it can still end up being canceled, in which case, the project manager needs to ensure the project has been fully documented, as it may become part of another project in the future. Other things to consider include contractual agreements with vendors. If a project gets canceled, it’s important to close that financial loop. In addition, the manager needs to release team members so they can move on to other projects.

“How do we pivot plans in order to make sure they are still successful?” asked Goeller.

“You want to be able to leverage synergy, because the same types of resources may work on similar projects,” she explained. “When you replace resources, you may create some flexibility in scope, time and funding. There are simulation tools that help you get the critical path of your project. Swapping resources and tasks will potentially change your critical path, and that may have an impact on the deliverables.”

People comprise 40% of a project aside from the process, Chien added, advising project managers pay attention to their “people situation.” That is, be mindful of team members’ individual circumstances when planning tasks, such as those taking care of small children. She spoke of a situation where someone she knows had to switch their hours in order to spend time with his children.

In addition, Chien suggested that everyone on a project team needs to have necessary business acumen skills, such as influencing, relationship building, and other soft skills, in order to make project outcomes happen. Technical skills and soft skills need to be coupled together, she noted, to move the needle closer to one’s goals. For these, she recommended taking a course in agile techniques, as well as AMA’s Business Essentials Certificate Program.

Goeller agreed, concluding the discussion by saying, “You can’t have one without the other. Projects are achieved through people.”

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