“Project Management Tools” with Rob O’Donohue

Episode 84: “Project Management Tools” with Rob O’Donohue


Originally from Longford, Ireland and went to University in Dublin, where I did a Communications degree that didn’t go so well. I then moved to Galway and did a degree in IT and Business. When I was growing up, I had a little bit of OCD or certainly structure in how I approached study, and I think further down the road that served me well when I became a project manager. I was technical in my role in the early years. I worked to get familiar with the fiscals and Microsoft solutions of the world at this time. It never really lit me up to be fair. I felt that there was another area that I needed to go into, so about seven years into my career, I switched to more of a management role and took on project management as well. That’s where I really wanted to be at that time.

I think around then I also started project management certification. The first one I did was PRINCE2 back in 2007. I found that enjoyable and it was a great stepping stone that allowed me to take on a full time project management position, which I did in 2008 when I moved to Cork. I started with EMC and took on a six-month contract position in project management in the IT department, which was good because it allowed me to work on projects, but were also technical IT projects that I had a good sense of the technology. That certainly helped in the early days when I was working with architects and engineers. Being on the other side of the PM, I was able to talk their language a little bit, which helped get some early wind and respect.

I moved up from project manager to portfolio manager. I took on a role as a global IT project management office lead. We set up a PMO there; then we got into the IT as a service world, which was very interesting at the time. It led me away from project management at the time but looked more at IT framework. I think all the time, using project management fundamentals and skills in every part of every role I’ve been in has been beneficial. The last 12 months since the Dell and EMC merger happened, I took on a role in a part of the IT organization for focusing on our end users to give them a great experience. I’ve been much more in the strategy business operations and talent development world. Again, with project management skills and solutions, necessary to give me every chance to be successful in the roles I’m in.


Project Management Toolbox

I would consider myself on more of the right brain side on management. I think of project management as a spectrum. On the left, you have the PMs that are very detail-oriented, but some are much more than others. I’m on the more right brain side where I would use the softer skills a lot more to help me be successful or get the job done. The tools I would use there are negotiation and influencing skills, which are important in the world of project management and are at the core of everything I do.

I think combining the softer skills with some of the tools is essential. You can’t live in that center of the spectrum. I think when you get into that program management, managing large projects or PMOs and you’re dealing with stakeholders, that’s essential. An idea I wanted to bring up was that of a risk register that I’ve always used in projects and early stages of decision making and initiatives with stakeholders. Very simply, you can create an excel sheet out of it. The key is those columns or fields you’re looking at when you’re looking at risk is the probability and impact of a risk actually happening.

Part of a program I worked on with EMC, where we looked at business continuity, disaster recovery, and crisis management for over the 29 departments. We were looking at the crisis management for the facility. We were looking at the probability and the impact of an earthquake or snowstorm happening in Cork and using that to identify how much of a risk there is in that happening and if it does happen what risk response are would be. Is it something we’d mitigate? Is it something we’d accept? We probably would accept the low likelihood and probability of an earthquake happening in Cork, so maybe not spending a lot of money to put in defenses around that. A snowstorm or bad weather in Cork, we would look at that and maybe mitigate that risk by providing work from home opportunities for some of our workers that would be deemed critical.

Using that tool was something that in those instances was very useful, but you can use those in every project and lots of ways for your benefit. It’s one of the core tools that you would learn going through the PMP or the project management framework and the strategies around risk are pretty important that you can use in life as well.


Regarding negotiation, did you cover them in training, learned in the field, or a combination? Are people natural negotiators, is it a learned skill, or both?

I think it’s something we can learn. I’m big into emotional intelligence. I recently did a coaching diploma, and before that, I’ve done a lot of reading in EQ. I guess negotiation and skills around influencing, being straightforward, and self-aware are things we can probably grow into. You probably are born with a certain level of this--some more than others--, but it’s one you can learn through experience.

I recall going to certain meetings unprepared as a naive project manager and not being very clear on what I wanted to get out of the meeting for myself. As a result, if you’re not very clear on what you want to get out of it, you’re probably not going to get much promise. I learned through experience and failure. EMC used to provide a lot of excellent, on-site and in-person training. In negotiation and influencing skills training we did role play in those classroom environments.

I remember one thing that stuck out at the time that I managed to use the next day negotiating. I was doing a Microsoft bender at the time, but it was knowing exactly what you wanted to get out of the meeting or what decision you wanted to get. Maybe even asking for more than you want. The initiative we were working on was running out of Microsoft hours, and I knew we weren’t going to finish in time, so the next day after the negotiation game we played and the advice that we took out of it, I brought that into a meeting the following day. I effectively went in asking for way more than I know I would get and more hours than I knew that I wanted. It was about setting that bar high.

The other side of negotiating, for that person to compromise effectively at a lower amount, but that was actually the amount I was hoping for. You should always know what you want going into negotiating. What’s your (architectures?) Who are your stakeholders? Maybe also provide certain options that could come out of a negotiation. Serve options to choose from. Obviously, including one that you want, but be clear on why you want it and the benefits or value of going down this route. You’re effectively steering it in the way you want so work through it in your own head before and know what outcomes you want. Hopefully, more often than not, they will come when you plan appropriately.


The roles and responsibilities of stakeholders and why meeting them early on in a project is key.

I remember looking back on a project I did years ago, and drawing on knowing the value of who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed, I quickly got a session going with all of the stakeholders. We worked at a very high level. Maybe in the five or six core areas that each of them would be held accountable for and created a very simple matrix that they all signed up to and agreed upon. What was hugely beneficial going forward was that anytime an issue or risk came up on the project that landed in their area, they could take care of it.

For example, we were running over budget and needed to release extra funds. One of the stakeholders took a point to be accountable in finance. We used the tool to go directly to that stakeholder and say ‘we’re going to hit a problem with finance in two weeks if it’s not resolved.’ In turn, they took that on board and resolved it. I remember during that project because there was a lot of eyes and focus on it; I used that numerous times to my advantage. It was going back, getting that assignment agreement, which helped going forward. I know that when you’re taking on a new project and from having a lot of PMs report to me over the last few years, there is that expectation to hit the ground running, get moving fast, show some early winds.

With all that goes into getting going, you can get to take a time out and get a view of some of these essential, fundamental templates completed and signed off. It is one of those that keeps getting lost in the mix. When we’re a couple of months in and maybe hitting a roadblock around finance, infrastructure, or whatever areas it’s in, the question I would ask is: who is held accountable for this area? More often than not it hasn’t been defined or done because everybody just wanted to get started. I think that’s one thing I try to influence, is to get that done as soon as possible and taking a little bit of time at the start. It also sets a good precedent as a PM, working with their stakeholders. The stakeholders take notice when a PM takes charge, stands their ground, and are quite firm. It gives them that sense of confidence that this person knows what they’re trying to do.

Another angle on that is the stakeholder influence grid. Categorizing your stakeholders into a box, so if there’s someone you need to manage closely or monitor. You need to keep some stakeholders informed and others you need to keep satisfied all the time. It’s good to know that for yourself early on in the project. If meet with those stakeholders early on that you need to keep satisfied, then, later on, they can champion what you’re doing. Again it goes back to communication, relationships, and some of the softer skills.


Regarding communications, what is your role with the PMI? 

Over two years ago, I took on a role with the PMI Ireland Chapter as the Regional Officer, which meant I was responsible for running events outside of Dublin. For the last two years, we’ve run events in Cork, Galway, and Limerick. The way it works in the PMI Chapter is you can do a role for two years, so my two-year tenure is just ending. From the start of 2018, I have taken on the new role of Communications Officer. It’s a new role for me, but not the chapter. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and seeing what I can make of that.

I believe that communication is at the core of everything from project management. Within the Chapter, it will be an exciting role trying to bring up and introduce some new ways of communicating. I’d certainly like to run a podcast for the PMI Chapter over the course of the year. With this whole new media world that we’re in, there are lots of ways to communicate. I’m looking to see where I can take that. And an absolutely shameless plug for the PMI Chapter: www.PMI-Ireland.org

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