Stay on Top of Your Work With Elizabeth Harrin! [PODCAST EPISODE #12]

  • March 7, 2018
  • by Kate Borucka
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Table of Contents

Stay on Top of Work With Elizabeth Harrin!

It’s Wednesday and it’s time for another episode of our podcast!

Today I’m talking with Elizabeth Harrin, the author of a popular blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

Listen to today’s episode to find out if there is any difference between male and female perspective in project management, but also why you shouldn’t be a slave of methodologies in PM.

Enjoy and let us know in comments what are your thoughts on today’s episode!

Are you an iTunes user? Listen to the podcast here

Podcast Transcript

Kate: Hello, welcome back, this is Kate with another episode of the podcast. And today my guest is Elizabeth Harrin.

Elizabeth is an award-winning project management writer. She is also an active professional project manager with more than a decade of experience in financial services and healthcare. She is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management.

Hello Elizabeth, how are you? I’m happy to have you here today.

Elizabeth: Hello, Kate, how are you? I’m fine, thank you and it’s lovely to be on your podcast today.

[00:00:46 – 00:02:29]

Kate: Thank you, I’m really good, thank you very much! So to begin with, can you say a few words about yourself and how did it happen that you work in the field that you work in?

Elizabeth: I’m one of the few people I think who actually chose to be a project manager because I meet a lot of people who’ve ended up in project management by accident. But I was very lucky that in my first job after university I was the graduate trainee for marketing space and I’ve got to see a lot of different areas of the business in that job. I did a rotation in the department called business reengineering, I think it was at the time, what is basically the project management. And I was there 3 months, I worked with some amazing people, in 3 months when I was fresh out of school I didn’t do any project management myself but I was supporting people who were doing project management. And I thought “oh this is a good job, no one ever told me about this at school.” And it was all about lists, keeping people organized, keeping things on time, being structured. And I felt that it would really play to my strengths. So when that job came to an end, when that rotation came to an end and I thought “okay, I’m no longer a graduate trainee, I have to get myself invaded in the right direction now.” I was looking for a job that was project management.

But before I went to invest in it I had no idea that it was even an option for people and I think many people find themselves in that situation. When you fall into project management it’s not because you necessarily chose it but because your skills lend themselves to the kind of work that you used to get done. So I just made that jump just a little bit earlier because of the opportunities I had.

[00:02:30 – 00:04:02]

Kate: So let’s talk about project management and team management. What are the good skills of a project manager who leads a team?

Elizabeth: Well, that’s a really good question because all project managers… That’s not true.  Lot’s of project managers have teams and the majority of project managers will work with a project team. But they don’t always report to you so there’s two different types of a team you could have. The one that you’ve got responsibility for your team and then is the other type when you’re managing in a matrix environment. And I’ve done both. And it’s being different challenges and different skills that you need in both areas I think. More commonly you end up as a project manager with a team that does not report to you for things like pay, appraisals, holidays or that kind of stuff.

And when you’re in that kind of situation I think the key skills that you need are the ability to motivate people and to communicate. Because if you don’t keep everybody on the same page within the team, you find that everybody has their own priorities outside of your project and they all often do things slightly different or their interpretation of what you want them to do. So being able to communicate and bring them together as a team, even if they’re in different offices, even if they have different levels of contribution to bring the project, I think that’s really important.

[00:04:03 – 00:05:50]

Kate: So I’m thinking about challenges and risks. Because this is connected particularly with project management and the evaluation of the risk. How can we evaluate risk and how can we manage risk in project management?

Elizabeth: I don’t think that you can do it by yourself, I think there’s a road for everybody to play and risk means to be driven from a level of strategy really. Because that sets your risk appetite for the kinds of risks that you are prepared to take as business, which case goes down to the kind of risk that you’re prepared to accept within the project. And there are two levels. Corporate risk and project risk are very different. So the context for the kinds of decisions that you might take when you find the risk on your project would be informed by how your business approaches risk.

And I suppose to give you an example if you’re in a very lean startup and you’re groundbreaking, you’re doing something amazing as an entrepreneur, you might take more risk and be prepared to accept the great level of risk in your projects than if you were a 400-year old investment bank, for example. So I think as a project manager what you’re looking at is trying to make sure that you understand the risks that your project is facing and you have to do that with the involvement of the other people in the team and what your stakeholders and your project sponsor because risk come from all different kinds of areas and it’s one thing to look at, what’s happening on your project with tasks, with the kind of challenges that you’re facing day to day, but it also risks that may affect your project that comes from outside your project and your sponsor, your project office. You know, all the project managers might be able to tell you about those kinds of things.

[00:05:55 – 00:07:55]

Kate: So let’s talk about methodologies and practices of a good project manager. Do you think a project manager needs to follow certain practices or not really?

Elizabeth: That’s a very broad question. Yes, I think there are certain practices that it is good to follow, no I don’t think there is any one particular way that works for everybody. So I suppose if you boil it down, what I’m trying to say is you need to find a methodology that works for your coacher, your business coacher, and the kind of team, and the kind of project that you’re in. And once you found the winning formula then you stick with it. But having said that there is a road for playing for iteration, so you want to be looking at how can we do things better all the time?

So having a methodology written down in your handbook or on your internet and then sticking with it for the next ten years is never gonna happen. And shouldn’t happen because you want your project teams to giving you feedback as business that says, “if we did it like this, with all our projects, we had the flexibility to not write this 30-page project initiation document and maybe do 5 page one instead?” We’re reducing bureaucracy, we’re keeping things moving. So within an organization you might have several different methodologies that work, so for example I’m making businesses where there are certain things where I juggle the approach, strict, you know, scrum, proper agile. But these are things things that are a waterfall and then there’s other projects that don’t hybride. But, actually, as long as it works for the project, that’s fine. These are 3 different approached within one business but the project managers or the project office, project sponsors that would influence it which is the right approach to be taking at any one time.

So methodology is important but it’s less important than perhaps, people might think. As long as you got the right one.

[00:07:56 – 00:09:24] Kate: So basically everyone needs to find the methodology that works best for him?

Elizabeth: Yes, and you start, obviously, with the published best practices. So there’s EPM operates in most of the countries, PM operates globally. You’ve got national bodies and international professional groups you can go to seek out the best practice. So they’re starting points, methodologies, scrum alliance, lots and lots of people put out project management best practices but I think there is a risk when you slavishly follow the guidance. Because it might not quite be right for you. And we used to see that a lot with PRINCE2, cause PRINCE2 is one of the prevailing methodologies off standards in UK and people are conducting it in their business but the book itself is one of the risks. Taking PRINCE2 course is that you come out the other way and think you have to do it all.

And I was working with project managers who were like “alright, now I’m on page 52 of the manual and I have to fill in this book, this document.” Actually, you really don’t because your project doesn’t need a cost management plan because you don’t have a budget so what are you doing? Why are you wasting your time? So it’s about using professional judgment, I think, to pick and choose within a framework and I suppose that’s where project offices have such a role to play in businesses because they can really guide project managers to make the right decisions and support the tools they can craft and methodology that’s right or second methodologies that works. They support the technology that project managers use or that kind of stuff.

[00:09:26 – 00:13:03]

Kate: So let’s talk about us, girls, because you write a blog, Girls Guide to Project Management, and I’d like to begin with the question of a female perspective on project management. Do you think it is different to be a woman in the project management world than being a man? Are there any differences?

Elizabeth: I get asked this question quite often actually and I normally end up saying “no.” There’s different things to fracture for being a working woman as opposed to being a working man in terms of being taken seriously at work, dealing with imposter syndrome, having confidence, people talking over you in meetings, there’s lots of things that women find challenging at the workplace. And I’m not a man, I can’t tell you what man find challenging at the workplace but I’m sure that there’s equivalency on the other side of the corner as well. But in terms of how man and women approach managing projects, I’ve seen women doing projects incredibly badly and I’ve seen men doing projects incredibly badly and vice versa.

So some of the best project managers I’ve worked with being men. But I work in an environment where a lot of very, very good project managers are women, so I think it’s so much to do with personality and character and what you consider to be important, and the project managers that I think are most successful are the ones who can communicate, who stay close to their teams, who know their people, who understand the business and have that sense of business acumen that think “perhaps we’re not quite doing the right thing here, I need to go and check it for somebody.” People who understand how to manage the finances and keep stakeholders happy. So the project managers who I see being the most successful in their jobs are the ones who kind of have that office politics full of engagement, understanding of the core architecture of their company. And they can be either women. Both people are great in these fields.

So I think, there’s an article on my blog about how women approach risk management but I can’t remember what the conclusions were from that. There was a conclusion that said it was a different style than how men approach managing risk. But apart from that one, that was a study that was written in one of the journals, I’m not aware of any otherwise girl studies that prove that there is a difference in how men and women approach projects in a way that affects success in the end.

What do you think?

Kate: I actually agree with you. I also talked before with Susanne Madsen and she said exactly the same. That there’s actually not much difference and it all depends on the character, on the features that we have, personality.

So I think it’s a stereotype that people say that female and male approach is different or maybe we are not treated equally but I think we actually are. So that’s what I think.

Elizabeth: I think there is a lot of truth in that. I remember receiving an e-mail from a guy who was a teacher in Africa. And I can’t remember the details of the e-mail but I remember him saying he was teaching project management class to a group of young women and what it was saying, here’s an example as of women who are successful project managers and was using my blog as one of the examples of a source for tolls and different things because there were not many female role models in his country so I think that probably, if you look at the international picture you might conclude something different than over here in the UK, I think.

I like to think that we’re moving more towards parity.

[00:13:04 – 00:14:35]

Kate: Yes, I think it’s the same in Europe and the United States. So, I’d like to ask you a question about your blog, Girls Guide to Project Management. Can you tell us in a few words what it is about and topics does it touch?

Elizabeth: It’s my blog and I write there a couple of times a week. And I care for all kinds of projects and all kinds of people working on projects but I’m trying to get people tools to help them manage their confidence, manage their projects with more confidence and less stress. So I’m trying to provide real-life tools and tips that I have used, templates, bits of advice, things that help to manage project in the real world really. Because I think so much of what we see and so much of the project management literature is about what works in an ideal environment where you have got a wonderful stakeholder, group and you have a perfect sponsor who turns up to every meeting and your team just loves changes and does everything that you ask. And all your tolls works perfectly. And who works in an environment like that? So I prefer to talk about what real project management is like so how do you delegate something when somebody doesn’t want to receive the task? How do you get your team stay motivated when you’ve got too many to give them bonuses? That kind of thing. And people seem to like it. And there’s lots of project management blogs out there. Lots of project management books. So the books I have written have been a little bit more structured.

[00:14:36 – 00:19:40]

Kate: I also would like to ask you, because you have a lot of experience, what advice would you give young people and young women entering the world of project management. And also to startups because there’s a lot of startups which fail because they don’t know how to manage projects.

ElizabethI’d say project management is a really great career, it’s a job that opens lots of doors and lets you see lots of different areas of the business because it touches on so many different things, and there’s so much writing so right now I’m working on a project that has to do with client complaints but a few years ago I was working on a software launch and before that I worked an internal comps project, you know there are lots of different areas of the business I’ve seen as a project manager are far more than I would ever have been able to be involved with than if I had taken a job in a marketing or working my way up from marketing assistant to marketing manager or something.

So in terms of people joining the profession, is fantastic time to be learning on how to manage projects. But the things that will make you successful are being able to structure other people. So you do have to have some degree of interpersonal skills aside that it’s probably the most important thing to work on. And you can learn it. I mean, when we were saying about not really any differences between how men and women approach projects, the skills that make people successful are skills you can learn and improve so there’s no innately perfect project manager. Everyone can do a bit of learning and studying, practicing and reading to help improve their skills. And being able to get work done through other people is really a critical skill.

So if you’re in a startup environment and you’re trying to stay organized, the important thing to think of there is you’ve got a very small team so you kind of all have to do lots of different roles in lots of different hats. And the key thing to think about is to stick with your goals, stay focused. And this goes actually for whatever size project. Because if you know what it is that you’re trying to achieve, you can then work and you’re going to get there. But if you don’t know what the end goal is and you don’t have very clear success criteria of how will you know when you’ve got there, you kind of just flounder, it all just becomes value work that just never ends and you just keep moving the tasks across. If you know that you’re launching an app or you are closing down an office or something, if you have a right clear defined endpoint, and you know exactly what it is, what success looks like, what you’re trying to achieve. So when you hit a stumbling point, whatever that might be, you can think does this help us achieve our goal? Yes? We do it. No? We don’t do it. And then you don’t get distracted. Because if you can keep focused, and you can also understand what’s important, so launching an app it might be most important to stay on budget.

But actually the time for the launch may be a bit flexible, you might be able to go over a few weeks or launch at an early. But if you’re closing down an office and you’ve told everybody the office closes on the 1st of March, the office will close on the 1st of March. And if you have to throw people out of it or spend a bit more money, there might be some latitude to do that as long as you hit that deadline. So understanding what your customers want as well in terms of how they will rate success. But so it all comes back to the triple constraint triangle. Time, cost, and quality. Project management has moved on a long way since that but it is still very good and defining structure for people to think about what parameters they’ve got to work within.

I think this is something that we find a lot with project management that I seek to that it’s maxim of disconnect between what I’ve been asked to do and what the business is trying to do and PMI has been talking about it over the last few years about strategy execution. How do you deliver your strategy? Whether that strategy is a startup or whether that’s a multinational company or whatever. Or even just your objectives for your department for the year. You deliver that through change and then the change happens through projects, it’s not good enough just to write a fancy PowerPoint presentation about what did you want to do. You actually need people who can take that, translate that into tasks, and then do the work. I think project management is about telling people what they need to do to work and helping them get there, remove the right blocks, no, it’s a lot more than just telling people what to do 😉

Sometimes people need a little bit of guidance to get in the right direction.

[00:19:40 – 00:22:34]

Kate: Yes, that’s true! So you mentioned the PRINCE2 method and that it’s used in the UK, do you have certain methods that you use in your life, in your work that work the best for you?

Elizabeth: Yes, I think that the tool that I’ve been reliant on the most over the last few years has been my rate look. So I have a spreadsheet with a tap for actions, risks, issues, dependencies, contacts. It’s a workbook that I have open pretty much all the time. Sometimes I have a master in check as well so that I can highlight the key master because a lot of what I do at the moment is business change. So when people say to me things like “you have to have this work done but then should I have to be doing this and you need to do critical path method” Actually a lot of that doesn’t work for the kind of environment that I’m working in. And maybe purists could say they could find a way to shoo in but I find it doesn’t work in my setting.

So having a master plan, which is the high-level master and having a detailed project plan in my project management software is fine but maybe someone wants to look at that, apart from me. So my spreadsheet is kind of my go-to document that I have open all day, every day, and it gives me a frame for what I’m trying to do. I can track all my tasks, I can track all the risks, the issues, the decisions that we’ve made because typically people will come back in say, 6 months’ time and say “oh no, I’m not gonna do that” and I can go ”yes we are because we said we would 6 months ago and you agreed on this at this meeting”  And it saves a lot of time to go back through minutes.

So I suppose it’s less of the method but more of a tool that helps me deliver my method. I think all project managers just go with project initiation kick-off planning then you do your execution phase with the various different gates in the middle just to check that you’re on the right path and then we do close down as for something we do differently we try to encourage lessons learned feedback from my stakeholder all the way through the project. In fact, we’re seeing more and more people do this. 5 years ago it was very unusual for a non-agile project to be capturing lessons learned as you go. It’s much more the process and books tell you. The Pink book guide version can be latest edition of the standard from PMI has actually got lessons learned much more prominently with all the way through.

So I think the coach is changing but it used to be the case, you just waited till the end to the lessons learned and for a long time now we’ve been trying to incorporate lessons learned far earlier because then you can change things and improve things as you go rather than get to the end and go “oh we should have done it like that”.

[00:22:40 – 00:24:44]

Kate: I’d also like to ask you what inspires you in your work and what books do you read to always stay updated to the latest news in project management world?

Elizabeth: I tell you what really inspires me; it’s going to conferences because I think we get so booked down into our daily life. You learn everything there is to know about your project, your team and you just turn into work, you do the job, it’s your world. And when you go to a conference and you can sit there and listen to somebody from a different country, give you a presentation go “yeah, I can really associate with that, I understand that, that’s a fantastic idea, why don’t I try that in my business?” Or even if it’s something, case study presentation, something you could never implement in your job in million years. It’s still inspiring to hear the challenges and the approaches other project managers are using. So if you’re feeling a little bit stuck in rut, having a day out of the office to go to project management event would be a huge top tip for me. I think it’s a really great way to reenergize and come back to work thinking positively about all the cool things that you’ve heard

And as of books, I read loads. I’m reading at the moment “Filling Execution Gaps” by Todd Williams. And I’ve read recently Sanket Pai’s “The Willing You”, which is more around personal improvement, being your personal best. So I read a lot wide-ranging management books I think. Project management books, it is important to keep up today with what’s happening, what the trends are. But you probably get that more through journals and through conferences than you do through books. I find project management books to be quite expensive so the cheap options of getting things out from library or reading extracts from books online, checking out people’s blogs. I subscribed to a ton of project management blogs so I’m trying to keep up today through those as well.


Kate: So my last question is connected with the name of the podcast, Stay on Top of Your Work. How do you stay on top of your work?

Elizabeth: I’m bad at staying on top of my work 😉 I do struggle so I do find that staying on top of my work helps more when I have a very clear to-do list. So I do try and keep my to-do lists focused and spend some time in the evening before working out what might 3 top tasks are for the coming day so that I can make sure I do my priority work first. I try to make sure that I’ve got some blank time within the week to catch up on e-mails and to do all the tasks that I need to do so that I’m not working too late in the evenings. And I constantly rewrite my to-do list and once a week I’m writing out my to-do list. I like to have a to-do list on pen and paper so I’m not one of these people in the Evernote or whatever tools there are to capture to-do list. I can’t cope with that because I’m working between too many different devices and in too many different locations. So the note I just carry around. And I’m a writer myself so there’s just something in physicality of writing a list and crossing tasks off, I like that.

So I think that’s probably how I try to stay on top of things. Also, by knowing what the priorities are, what the upcoming deadlines are so that I can be using my time in the most productive way, knowing what’s the important things to be happening. So that you’re never at the situation where I’ve got a massive or a big project board meeting tomorrow and I haven’t done any of the paperwork. Because what I tend to do there is the week before, I will say I blocked an hour in my diary to say, prepare project or papers in agenda and e-mail them to the attendees. So I can use my diary as well to keep myself organized by blocking out time to do work.

Kate: Elizabeth, thank you very much for attending this interview, it was my pleasure to talk to you.

Elizabeth: And you too, thank you so much for having me on the show today.

Kate: Thank you very much.

We got some good tips today from Elizabeth on how to stay on top of your work. You can find more information on her under this podcast so make sure to check this out and I want to know your comments. Let me know if this helps you and what you’d like me to include in my interviews with my amazing guests. 

And I look forward to talking to you soon, bye-bye!

Thanks for listening!

Don’t forget to follow Elizabeth on social media and visit her blog to get more useful tips!

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Kate Borucka

Kate is a freelance translator, copywriter, and a content writer specializing in time tracking software, time management, and productivity. When not researching new software, she's reading books, or spending time outdoors.

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