P&M 44: Project Management with Elise Stevens


In this episode of People & Management we discuss Project Management with expert Elise Stevens.


Elise’s Background:

Experienced Project Manager and Organisational Change Manager.

Specialises in the development of capability and core skills for women in project management such as:

– Change leadership

– Leading cross functional teams

– Confidence

– Influencing/building networks to deliver projects

Successfully delivering people and process change within organisations.

Fix My Project Chaos


SALLY: Welcome to another episode of People and Management, and I’m excited to have Elise Stevens with me on this episode to talk all things project management. Elise is an expert in project management, she has a service – Fix My Project Chaos – which I love that name. She is someone who really helps people find their place in project management and organisational change, because that’s where her experience lies. She specialises in the development of capability of core skills, specially for women in project management, and digging deeper that seemed to change leadership, leading cross-functional teams, having confidence and building your confidence as well as influencing and building networks to deliver projects. Elise is all about successfully delivering people and process change within organisations. I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Elise Stevens to the People and Management podcast,  welcome Elise.

ELISE: Sally thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

SALLY: I am someone who has a little bit of programme management experience in my past, in my deepest, darkest regions of my career, but I’ve always been intrigued about project management and what the difference is between what we would call general management versus project management, so can you enlighten us please?

ELISE: Well projects usually have a fixed scope and a fixed number of outcomes that they’ve got to deliver, like building a bridge, you gotta … that outcome is that people can use the bridge, the output is the bridge and you’re doing everything to get the bridge in place and typically once the bridge is built the project’s disbanded and people are moved on and then the communities keeps using the bridge. In general management you’re doing a lot of forecasting, you’ve got operational things happening, you’ve got a team to nurture and grow, you’ve got controlling going on, what ever it is about management that of your team or the processes within your team. Hope that sounds correct and there’s enough differentiation there.

SALLY: Yes, and it’s actually prompted another question if I can around if general management means that you’ve got your team generally speaking, in place and ongoing, so the focus then is to make sure your team are working and functioning effectively. For project managers then, I imagine, and correct me if I’m wrong, that you’ve got to get your team on board and functioning as a team really fast because there’s deliverables and the end dates in play?

ELISE: Yes, you do and that’s where in the past there’s been a lot of failings with project management or project managers, because let us say some of the capability has been around let’s tick that box, let’s do a schedule, task game, task one, two, three, gotta do this, I’ll just order those people to do that and they’ll just go away and do it then. I don’t need to really understand people and how they’re feeling, wow feelings, what’s that? That in fact to be a successful project manager to deliver the right outcomes for the organisation, or the community, who ever it is, you need to have a highly engaged team, so that people can get on board with the vision of the projects and really want to deliver and to give their 110% because we all know what happens when teams are dysfunctional.

SALLY: Yes, definitely, so thank you for that and I guess then it’s building into any sort of project, the time and the resources to make sure that it’s not … your quantities surveyed, this is the image I have in my head. You’ve got your quantities surveyor coming through and saying “okay, this is what we need, this, this and this, to these sort of quantities and volumes” but then you need almost the human quantities surveyor to say “okay, well we need to actually get this, this and this in place to get our people on board and get our people functioning together.” I think that’s really interesting piece that you raised around project managers being totally project faced and sometimes not really thinking about the human element.

ELISE: No, I see it a lot, I see so much of it where, we’re comfortable dealing with the process and we’re … surely if I just tell them and shout at them they’ll go away and do it.

SALLY: Yes, they’ll do it but how well will they do it?

ELISE: Well they’re not … people aren’t gonna care, missed timelines oh well you know I’ve already been shouted at once.

SALLY: Yeah, and people will walk quite so, that just adds more cost into the project.

ELISE: Yeah, I was a part of a project where the programme manager said of another team member “oh you know he’s not right, he doesn’t have the skills,” he didn’t say it to the person but he said to someone else and it all got back to that person, and he was under a lot of stress because project wasn’t going well, but he remembered that and he said “I’m doing my best here but I’m not gonna go and do anything more because X Y Z has no has already said that I’m not the right person, I’m a waste of space” and it’s like and he eventually got a new job and had a whole ripple effect because he was like a key person on the project. You know that one comment, disrupted and cost I think it probably put the project behind two to three months, and added another $400,000-500,000 to the price tag.

SALLY: Gosh, they just don’t get it do they how much at the beginning of a project, how important it is to make sure you’ve got every element and the human element as well. Gosh that’s so expensive.


SALLY: Let’s hope they’ve learnt the lesson.

ELISE: No they didn’t.

SALLY: Oh, okay. So, I guess that’s then how do they front up for future project management roles when they don’t exactly have all these runs on the board, and get it, it’s a scary proposition really.

ELISE: Well I think it goes back to what organisations expect of project mangers. If organisations are content, there might be mutterings about oh you know those project mangers they never deliver what we want, but they never help create the environment and you’ve also got on the other side the project managers thinking oh well, I can just do what I normally do and no one’s really going to want anything different. So you’ve got both sides of the equation not really thinking about … I think things are starting to change but how can I do things slightly different and you know there are project managers that try to do things differently but are being kind of stomped on by the organisation. Then you got some organisations wanting to do things a bit differently, and seeing that the project managers really don’t have the skills that they want to be able to do it. It’s good when it all comes together that you’ve got an organisation that wants to do things differently and focus on the outcome and the people and the process, and you’ve got project mangers that are wanting to be part of that and really support the change in leadership.

SALLY: Yes, the point there about that relationship, it’s not just project manager to project team but it’s also a project manager to organisation. It’s interesting that you said that because it reminds me, I wrote an article ages ago around the middle squish and while I was talking about middle managers in that context about translating the strategy vision and reporting upwards and all the stress that comes from above a middle manger, but there’s also the translation and the drive and the in-powering, coaching, guiding, leading that they had to do down to their team. It’s the same for a project manager, by the sounds of it, the similar kind of pressures come to bear.

ELISE: You’ve got pressures from the team, because the team are probably saying “this is wrong, and this is wrong,” you’ve got pressures from where we use a lot of vendors now, you’ve got pressures from who ever you’re delivering the project to about they’ve got things going on, normal day-to-day things going on in their teams probably. They may or may not want the change, it might be a regulatory change and you’ve got the organisation itself, and you’ve got all these facets going on and as the project manager you are the … every ones looking to you to give the right direction, and to set the tone, and if you only focus on “I’m just delivering the technology, I don’t need to worry about X Y Z, I don’t need to worry about the people, that’s your problem.” What kind of message is that sending?

SALLY: Yes, exactly good point. And speaking of people then you talked about there more of a vendor model happening these days, but I’m curious as to what are lessons of experiences you’ve had that you’re prepared to share around how project mangers handle or have handled multi disciplinary teams?

ELISE: Well, I think that in the past that we just say “oh well, that’s the vendor’s problem, they have to deal with that,” and that’s their problem and so we create this Divide where the vendors are kind of over there, we’re paying them they should be engaged. They should be happy to have the work, but really you need to work together as a harmonious team in order to deliver this situation. I was working on a project once, and the whole vendor arrangement was set up before I even turned up, but there were very tight milestones in the project and both sides, both the vendor and ourselves were trying to get things done but there were lots of issues happening. We had to stick to that timeline and it was because it was written in the contract but even thought the vendor had technical issues we still had to bust a gut and get this particular thing in. Some of it was driven by the bonus scheme in the vendor, and so we as the project team felt that we were rolling out substandard things because we were trying to justify and help people in the vendor organisation get their bonuses, and it may/ may not be what it actually was happening but that was the emotion that we felt.

SALLY: Yeah, and that then … why bother, that’s what I’m hearing, why are we doing this for the wrong reasons.

ELISE: That’s right but there have been other occasions where we’ve had a really good relationship with the vendor, where it’s been symbiotic, it’s been … we’ve worked as a team and we delivered the right outcomes and it was a joy to actually work on that. As they buying the procuring organisation, you been paying their invoices but you did, you felt that it was a very good relationship and that you got the right outcome for the organisation.

SALLY: And I think what … again it’s back to the human element, and I don’t think that we can ever escape it, and I guess the question I have then is, does it vary or change much when you have a virtual team?

ELISE: Look I think it’s more tricky, because as we were talking about previously about we do like in-person, we do like to be able to see people, and understand them and so having virtual teams I think you can do, and obviously you can do because people are doing it, but I think you’ve got to set up a whole lot of ground rules and I think that email is a terrible way to communicate. So say I am not happy with a status report you might have sent me and as a virtual team you say things like “this isn’t good enough” and so if someones reading, putting their own tone into the email then it could all get nasty but if you upfront as part of the on-boarding process say “okay, this is how I’m gonna give you feedback, if I really have an issue then I’m gonna call you before this, I’m never going to do this and I want the same respect,” but then you can kind of, not kind of, but then you know what it is and put your tone and the relationship [inaudible 00:15:10].

SALLY: And that’s managing expectation and it’s setting expectations and I think that one of the things that a lot of people complain about is that they don’t really kind of know what their boss wants from them. Yes, I get what you mean about being tricky, but yet again back around to the human element, and thinking about the human and the impact and the … I guess not a lot of people actually think about emotions when they think about work, but the reality is when we’re talking about interpersonal communication, that’s what … emotions cannot not be present.

ELISE: Well that’s right, and I’ve seen some very emotional men at work, more so that I would have thought, and I’m not categorising men and women here but they try to portray this very structured, very I’m in control, but sometimes when they go off on a tangent or have a mini tantrum, it’s all this emotion coming out.

SALLY: You just made me wonder and I’m gonna go off track here a little bit, down the rabbit hole. You have a passion really to help women stay in project management, and the reason that I’m asking this is because I’m just wondering if when we talk about emotion, if we apply the word emotion to men, it’s very different to maybe how we apply the work emotion to women. And I’d love your input on this, just in my head I’ve just gone emotion women crying, men no emotion but it’s actually men also like you just said can get very emotional and it comes out in other things, and it’s not just crying but it’s also anger, or it’s joy, or it’s frustration, tantrums like you said, what are your thoughts around that?

ELISE: Yeah, I had the same thoughts, emotion equals crying for women, crying in the toilet, that sacred place of women, and yeah men either suppress it or it pops out in a inappropriate moment. Yeah, it think we are much more as a society we are much more okay about men having a mini tantrum in an open plain office than we are about women, even though I think it’s the same level of emotional outburst or release. We’re not okay with women crying.

SALLY: I think it’s the underpinning to that is that we need to start saying, we need to start having that conversations around, you’re allowed to have emotions and if you actually improve the way in which you deal with each other and your interpersonal communication skills, setting those expectations like you said, in the onboarding, then the emotional outbursts actually are significantly minimised. Thank you for that, keep going.

ELISE: No that’s alright. No the whole thing is to get to a point where those highs and lows of emotion aren’t happening I think and from a project perspective, having a well organised but well lead project goes a long way to minimising that highs and lows of projects.

SALLY: Yeah, which again I’m back down the rabbit hole cause I’ve got another question for you that just popped into my mind, was around celebrating the success of a project. Does that happen enough, what should we be doing when projects are completed and have come in close enough to budget or close enough to time or close enough to whatever the requirements were that is done and we can celebrate it? What are your thoughts around that?

ELISE: Well I think that just doing the simple things like saying “Scott I think you’ve done a great job on doing X Y Z” goes a long way. You don’t have to wait for those big milestones. If someones really gone out and, this is what is see lacking all the time, and we find it very hard to say to even our colleagues, “hey, Ann I think you’ve done a great job on engaging Mr Jones, our external stakeholder, he’s a very tricky stakeholder and I think you’ve done a great job,” but having mini milestones along the way to celebrate achievements is important because what happens at the end of projects? Everyone’s already being assigned to new projects and there’s usually one poor person left to close it all off, fix up all the financials, deal with any issues, and they’re just tired by then usually.

SALLY: It’s almost the thank you they never get, would that be fair to say?

ELISE: Yeah well you never get, specially if projects have been hard and difficult, the sponsors just want it over, they want it done, they want the bleeding to stop and so they’re just, oh thank gods that’s finished, but they can never kind of say “oh you know that was really difficult that project, congratulations on seeing it though,” they’re probably think it but they’re too caught up in the rest of the emotion about the bad project. Sorry, I think I’m saying that every projects a bad one or everything like that but unfortunately I think that projects on a whole have a bad rap, but sometimes specially organisations who do it well and I think Suncorp, from what I’ve heard, does it very well and I think that they actually engage people and they lead it properly and everything. They probably got a much better approach to doing things but, and celebrating success and those type of things but I think that everyone has the opportunity no matter who they are in the project team to really makes someones day and just say “you did a good job on that.”

SALLY: Yes, and I struggle with why people struggle to just say “hey nice one.” It actually doesn’t take much effort but I think it’s because like you said, they’re so focused on the next thing, the next thing, the next thing that we’re not as present as what we could be to really acknowledge what’s going on around us, so thank you for that I appreciate your input on that. It’s interesting that you said projects get a bad rap but they don’t necessarily need to, they need to engage you to help them.

ELISE: Well that’s right, that’s what I think too Sally.

SALLY: So there’s a nice plug for you Elise.

ELISE: Thank you.

SALLY: So, we just about out of time, you said that Suncorp do it really well, is there any other success story that you can brag about because I think we can always talk about the horrible stuff that goes on but what about something that’s been really kind of cool from your perspective in the work that you do?

ELSIE: So I was doing some work earlier this year with a utility company, and it was one of the more successful things that I was able to be a part of a team for, and we had to … we were making a small change or a change to a system but it had a big impact to all the field workers. So, when I started I was like “oh you know, this and that, they’re gonna be resistant,” but because we made the effort and this cost the change did cost but the outcome, we had a very personal level of engagement with people so we went out, I spoke to them on the phone, we went and saw them, we listened to them, we took on board their feedback, and people were more accepting of the change. Who would have thought? But it was successful, and so to be able to actually deliver something that was successful, that the team originating the change was happy, cause they got their outcome that they wanted, but the people that we were changing this small amount of process, and who were resistant understood why we were doing it, what the purpose was, and how it effected them positively in the long term. We got a lot of buy in and so it was great to have that positive impact on that organisation.

SALLY: Fantastic, thank you, and I think we don’t … we’re not a nation of braggers but I think it’s important to, every now and then, so to say “hang on a minute, we did something really well,” and that sounds like you said the buy in is a major contributor to the success of that projects so, thanks for sharing that.

ELISE: Oh now, it was just so nice to work on something that people weren’t initially they were like … but talking to people, engaging with them, and they’re like okay I understand why you’re asking us to do this and why this is gonna benefit me in the future.

SALLY: And I think that’s the lesson there for a lot of managers whether they’re in projects or general management, when we share the why people have a deeper understanding as to what to expect down the road and when I understand why we’re going to be doing this then I say “well, okay well that doesn’t interest me or I don’t like it but I get why you’re doing it therefore I won’t sabotage,” and that’s the worst case scenario versus oh cool let me help, let me jump in, now I get it, not I get it, I’ve got the buy in. Yeah, thank you, awesome. Elise we are at the end of our time and I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your project management wisdom with me.

ELISE: No a problem, thank you for asking such great questions Sally.

SALLY: Oh, thank you Elise, and if you want to find Elise you can find her at fixmyprojectchaos.com and Google Elise Stevens and you will find the gorgeous Elise and the great stuff that she’s doing to help, particularly women stay in project management, which I think is fantastic. She’s a confidence booster, she’s a changed management expert, she’s a project management wizard, I’m just delighted to have had a very snippet of that wisdom with Elise right now and if you want more expertise, wisdom, and confidence around your people and your management, jump on board to all the W’s sallyfoleylewis.com, I’ll see you next time.

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