How to build a company – Lessons Learned

July 11, 2011

We grow, we learn, we make mistakes, we do things right. Everyday we discover new things, positive and negative. Since we are working in a network the first thing we need to learn is to select our internal and external partners, as well as our staff, candidates, even clients carefully. Sometimes we are disappointed, but that never has been a reason to doubt that we are doing the right things. We have introduced resources at clients who have tried to take advantage. We could have stopped this with NDAs, contracts and lawsuits. Better not to bother and select even more carefully. We hired staff that could not be successful in an environment where responsibility and initiative is more important than the number of hours spent in the office or weekly status updates. We have accepted this and said goodbye, however painful. And we have selected external professionals to work with in areas where their expertise seemed undisputed, and also here once or twice we have made the wrong choice. The biggest surprise in this area was MarsId, the company that developed, built and hosted our website. Although we specifically picked a small company, focussed on Open Source software, on Social Media integration and in flexibility, this turned out to be one of our biggest and most costly disappointment. Once a contract was signed, they would not move an inch without signed-off specifications, Social Media proved to be a marketing buzz-word for them, not a working concept, and when we finally had to decide to further develop our website, they claimed copyright on the original site, and refused to give anyone access. Again, we could have sued, but well – the time, the money, the negativity – we paid them, we learned a lesson, and asked around for reliable partners. Of course we asked about copyrights, but rightfully they said the would not dream of claiming any rights on something the developed for a client. I am still wondering if anyone has similar experiences, if there was anything we could have done differently, or if it is just difficult, without an army of lawyers, to protect your company against greedy people.

Luckily we have also learned from successes. We share experiences, we share knowledge, we exchange ideas. Eager to share this experience, knowledge and resources with clients, we are looking for ways to store and convey. I cannot say we have the final solution for this challenge, but between Dropbox, our Google powered intranet, LinkedIn and physical exchanges like our “Whats Qooking” events we come a long way. Still, to discuss with our clients how to best help them, at some point we come to discuss people, and surprisingly, the CV still plays a considerable role in these discussions.

Like today, a Government-related organisation asks for help with Programme Management for a structural change programme. To better support their clients (local governments) they need to overhaul their service offering, but also the legal structure, governance, business processes and systems. When considering suitable candidates it is obvious that at some point the CV will come to the table, and these documents rarely do justice to the candidate.

For project or programme managers to simply list their previous clients and projects is not enough.

As we were discussing this (Marcel Ensing in The Netherlands, Tjibbe van der Zeeuw from Elba, Italy, Mario School from Winterberg, Germany and I still from Knokke Belgium) I became convinced that there is a lot companies like ours, and our resources can do a lot to improve. I will ask Tjibbe, who has spoken t thousands of candidates, and read thousand of CV to give some tips on how a CV can better reflects the character, background and experience of the candidate, rather than on how to write a CV that the candidate believes “will sell”. We are not in the Selling business, we are in the Strategy Execution, Problem Solving and Matching business.

But also outside the CV there is much project managers can do to learn, to increase their effectiveness, while at the same time demonstrating what they have done, how this has been successful (but also when there was room for improvement):

Every day of their career as a project manager the can work on building a portfolio, to display their efforts, to show outcomes, and to share Lessons Learned. A reliable portfolio enhances your reputation, encourages internal management or external clients to assign you to more challenging assignments and presents a standardized mechanism for sharing insights with your peers.

The first step: documentation

Document your contributions by generating weekly, monthly or annual status reports for project work, depending on the scope of the project. By providing one page summaries of work in progress, effective project managers keep their sponsors, stakeholders and team members informed about project risks and dependencies. Discussing status report with your peers, client, management is an excellent way to ask for help when needed, or to get feedback.

When you use a consistent format, recipients know where to look for relevant information. In our case, using MSP, we would not only look for information on scope, deliverables, timing, budget, risks etc, but also on contribution to strategy, fit in the portfolio, etc. I will shortly ask Peter Rappange to publish some of the standard reports we use.

Second step: writing

Write about what you have learned. Typically, to build a comprehensive portfolio of your project management experience, you need to collect in a standard format, the Lessons Learned from each and every project. My third promise: I will publish the Qhuba Lessons Learned Template soon. Beside this, it makes sense to start a blog to share what you’ve learned about project management processes, filled with what worked well, and what worked less well, for example: tips for defining the scope of a project, or the steps to come to a training course to increase a teams communication skills. Or describe how to interview stakeholders, or subject matter experts, conduct an online survey. Use metrics and examples.

Step 3: Talking

Talking about your experiences will help: By sharing your knowledge with your peers, you can contribute to their career development as well as build your own portfolio. Get on stage, or enter into round table discussions with colleagues, clients and consultants to discuss the best techniques for handling project challenges, setting up portfolio management, and dealing with practical things like vendor selection, monitoring ad reporting. Demonstrating your ability to explain successful approaches and methods helps to establish you as an expert in handling problems and capitalizing on opportunities to reduce costs, eliminate waste and increase client benefits.

Other possibilities are: mentoring less experienced colleagues, staff or client staff. By spending time and talking with a less experienced co-worker to learn about his career plans, you can help him establish an action plan and set of development objectives. Over time, by observing your actions in meetings, reading communications you send and listening to your conference calls, the colleague will gather important information about how to function successfully. Through this partnership, you also gain exposure to the newer employee’s perspective on the business, which may contribute to adjustments in your own attitude.

Even developing training videos or recording a podcast about how to manage projects effectively helps you establish your reputation as an expert. For example, describe how to share professional resources effectively across multiple projects. Explain how to ensure consistency and make cost-effective decisions about resource allocation to ensure quality. Interview other project managers on this subject to create engaging and entertaining podcasts. Talk about problems and how you solved them. For example,discuss topics such as cost budgeting, estimating, leading global teams, negotiating with suppliers, networking, scheduling, risk management and team building. Start with an introduction, describe a situation and then provide details on how you handled it. Summarize your podcasts with a simple but compelling call to action.

All these activities will help to establish yourself as an accomplished project resource, and will “color in” your CV, and will help you to get, keep and grow.

All suggestions in this field are welcome, and I will gladly use them for our company, our website, or this blog.