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Interview with project manager and blogger Elizabeth Harrin

Retrium Team

Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and program manager. In addition to running the award-winning blog A Girl's Guide to Project Management, Elizabeth is the Director of The Otobos Group (a communications consultancy) and the author of Social Media for Project Managers, Customer-Centric Project Management, and Shortcuts To Success: Project Management in the Real World (now in its second edition). She has been named Computer Weekly's Blogger of the Year and IT Professional Blogger of the Year.

This interview touches on project management, retrospectives, distributed teams, and the future of the project management field.

Your background

David Horowitz (CEO, Retrium): Why don't you start by giving us a little background about yourself. How did you get started in the project management world?

Elizabeth: Well, I actually chose to be a project manager, which I think is unusual for many people these days! I did a graduate training scheme at American Express, which was very good because it gave me the opportunity to see lots of departments. I ended doing a rotation in a department called Business Re-Engineering, which I really liked.

I suddenly thought actually, I could do this forever. I could make this my job! So when that graduate training scheme came to an end, I sought out positions in project management because I figured it played to my natural skill set of being organized and writing lists and thinking things through and trying to plan. It felt like an actual fit and it was an actual job! I mean, no one grows up thinking they're going to be a project manager, but when you have the chance to see what's out there and find out that project management is a real skill, a thing that people pay you to do, it seemed like a good fit for me.

David: And then you started a blog called
A Girl's Guide to Project Management. Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to start it?

Elizabeth: Two things really. At the time, I was writing a book and I wanted to practice my writing and get the word out there about the book. Over time it's kind of changed because the angle I took at the time was reflective of the fact that there weren't very many women speaking at conferences, writing books, or doing editorials in magazines about project management. And that was not my experience in real life at all because in all the project management teams I've worked with, even in the IT departments, I have worked with good mix of men and women in every job.

To then go to a conference and look at people on the stage in the speaker line up and think that's not representative of me and it's not representative of my business. I started to think well maybe there was a voice missing. So I thought I would try and approach project management from a female perspective. Today there's a mix of things on there about parenting, and shopping for shoes, and doing stuff that every working parent does. It's not particularly about women, although recently I published something about the gender pay gap. Those topics still interest me, but I think from my reader surveys, I would say a large proportion, if not over half, would be men.

David: Yeah and perhaps men are interested in these subjects as well?

Elizabeth: Definitely! I think people find the title of my blog confusing because "A Girl's Guide to Project Management" can imply to people that it's for girls. But actually, if I had my time again, I would not have named my blog this. English grammar and apostrophes make people confused.

I'm the girl and it's my guide to project management. So it was never intended to exclude male readers or only ever intended to speak to female readers. If I had my time again, I probably would have chosen something without an apostrophe.

David: There's a lot of things if I could do all over again, I would do differently, so I sympathize! So how do you keep up with the project management world? Books? Blogs? Conferences?

Elizabeth: All of those things. London is a great place to work because there's lots of stuff happening. We've got a very active project management community in London across PMI, APM and also the British computer society project management groups too. And then there's other things. Big companies hold conferences just for their own project management staff, which might be upward of six hundred people. So there's lots going on and it's easy to keep up with, in that respect.

I also read the magazines from the trade press and the lovely publisher of my book on lessons learned keeps me in the latest publications for giveaways and for book reviews. And social media as well, I mean there's loads of stuff out there that you can find, especially this time of year because people are starting to talk about trends for the following year.


David: You mentioned "lessons learned" and in the agile community people talk about them as retrospectives. What your familiarity with agile? Do you use agile or are you more of a traditional project manager?

Elizabeth: I would say a bit of both. I trained as a traditional project manager. I never had any particular training in agile and it's only recently I started to properly understand that jargon that goes with agile project management.

But in terms of agile concepts, I've been agile "with a small a" for a very long time. We consistently involve users in project teams from the beginning, we do iterative design, we do design-based thinking, we bring in a lot of concepts from a lot of disciplines because it's the most effective way to get things done.

I'd say that I don't subscribe wholeheartedly to any particular strategy. The more you know about project management and all the things that you can use, the more you can pick the things that are going to work for the particular project you are working on.

David: How important are lessons learned? When should you run them and how frequently?

Elizabeth: The approach I take is that we try to run lessons learned throughout the project, similar to an agile retrospective. If you were doing one at the end of every sprint, you'd have information to feed into the next phase of the project. I think the biggest failing I see companies doing is to wait until the end. It's like saying, "How can I help you, now that it's too late?"

You're talking to your customer about what worked and what didn't work and you're talking to your team about what's working and what's not working, but you're done! So the traditional waterfall approach to project management would very much have those lessons learned as a post-implementation review of the end of the project. And that's completely pointless for that particular project and businesses are traditionally very poor at taking that information from a post-implementation review and applying it again in the future.

So you really got very, very little value from doing it. Whereas if you're doing a retrospective every couple of weeks, or you are doing a smaller customer satisfaction conversation about how the project is going, then you are getting useful information that you can make the next month or the next sprint better. And that's going to be good, isn't it? You can start using that information and putting it into practice today and improve how things are working.

David: How do you structure your retrospectives? Do you have any particular facilitation techniques that you use or more of just a general discussion?

Elizabeth: It's a general discussion based around a template with standard questions. We ask our project stakeholders to rate our performance on a scale of 1 to 10 every month, so we can plot their level of satisfaction. It's quite subjective in that if you've had major issues that month, the score goes down. If you haven't had to talk to them much because it's all plotting along well in the background, the score goes up.

But perception is reality in a lot of these things, especially with projects that are knowledge-based or are creating a digital asset, since your stakeholders have a huge influence over whether or not the project is seen as successful. If you want to make it successful, you need to ask them if it's successful the whole way through so it doesn't come as a surprise at the end.

And it gives us tangible data, because if they say, "This software deployment is going really badly and I'd only give you a five out of ten," you can ask, "Well what can I do next month to get to six?" Then if you do it, you can engage your stakeholders the whole way through and there is evidence to show that you are trying to do your best by them, that you are moving forward. And it creates engagement that helps you through the difficult times.

David: You mentioned a standard template with questions, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Elizabeth: The template we're using at the moment is:

  1. How are we doing managing the schedule?
  2. How are we doing managing your top three issues and what are they?
  3. How are we doing with project communication?
  4. How would you rate us overall?

It's really simple, but again one of the conversations we can have with customers or stakeholders is what do you think is important? And we'll ask you questions based on that.

David: So these are questions that you ask your stakeholders and customers. Do you also ask the team members the same questions?

Elizabeth: Not on every project, but we have done. It's very interesting actually because on a big implementation I worked on, we didn't start off asking the team because we were very much focused on whether it was working for the three of four external customers, and when I did get around to asking them, the team I worked in scored the project a 4/10, which was very embarrassing!

But rightly so, I mean when we talked about why that was and what we could be doing differently, it was things like the project team not providing enough time for changes, not providing enough information about deadlines, which was all stuff that we'd been doing really well to other people, but poorly between ourselves.

Gender differences

David: Do you think there are any special challenges that women face in a lessons learned or retrospectives context?

Elizabeth: I think generally women face difference attitudes at work, but I wouldn't say they are particular to retrospectives. Things like not being taken seriously in meetings. If you're chairing the meeting, if you're a young female, you might not be conveyed with a sense of authority that actually your post has. How do you assert yourself in that meeting to get that?

And if you're a participant in the meeting, you may have been a very key participant, -- and it depends on your colleagues, obviously -- but I have heard stories of people who have been a critical part of the project team and yet in the retrospective are asked to bring the teas in for everybody.

David: Wow.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I know! And I'm not sure that would happen to a young male software developer, but then that's not a challenge for retrospectives as much as a challenge of being a woman in a technical environment.

David: Since retrospectives are a bit more of an introspective meeting, as oppose to a technical meeting, I wonder whether there is almost a reverse discrimination, since stereo typically women are more in touch with their feelings?

Elizabeth: Maybe, but it suppose it depends on how comfortable you are with sharing your feelings, because even if you're in an environment where you understand the dynamics, it can still be quite difficult to bring them up. Also if a man brought his feelings up, would they be saying, "Oh that's a really great contribution!" and if a woman brought it up, would they say, "Oh that's just gossip"?

Of course, we are talking about major stereo types, but if you look at the perception of whether women are good at managing projects, a lot of that comes back to high levels of emotional intelligence. But I don't think it's particularly sensible to stereotype to say this works or that works, or women are better at this and men are better at that, because in my working experience I've certainly never seen that strong a dichotomy between men and women in the team.

The future of project management

David: Let's shift gears a bit to the future of project management and work. Have you ever worked with a distributed team?

Elizabeth: Pretty much always the work I do is with distributed teams, but the few times we have had co-located teams, it doesn't feel like co-located teams because we still work in virtual ways with emails and software and conference calls, even if we are sitting a couple of desks away.

But I think there is a big shift, even for teams that are highly co-located. They are working in ways where technology mediates their communication anyway and they are putting more and more stuff online. Even for agile teams that used to have big boards, we now have software that does that for us, which means if you are out of the office for a day, you are not out of touch with the board.

So I think that teams that work in a virtual way are much more common that they used to be.

David: Where do you see the project management field going in the next 10 years? What are some of the big changes coming that we should be aware of and what should we do in terms of our skill sets prepare ourselves?

Elizabeth: I think that more and more we are looking at the role of technology in business processes, which is great. The internet of things and Google Glass and stuff like that, but that has to go hand in hand with effective management and business change, because you can't just throw technology at problems and expect everybody to catch up.

I suppose for us as project managers, we're looking at how do we stay abreast of all those technological changes and tap into the business strategy, because we should be helping put that strategy together so that we can better deliver it.

The role of the project manager is changing from someone who ticks off tasks and chases up people for status to someone who can really take the business strategy, turn it into reality, and lead through the change in the business that comes with it.

Perhaps we're already there for some industries. There is no point just to deliver projects, you have to deliver the business value.

David: Couldn't agree more! To close the conversation out on a different note, any tips on how you maintain such a high-quality and frequently updated blog? Are there any secrets you can share?

Elizabeth: I love it! I think it's easy to do things that you're passionate about. If I wasn't writing about project management, I'd probably be writing a diary about how many times my children threw up that day or something like that. [Laughter] I can't see a life for me that didn't involve writing something down everyday.

I can churn out a couple of thousand words a day and not even notice it. So I suppose in that respect, my advice to people would be to find something that you love doing and then turn it into a job because that way it never feels like you are really going to work.

David: Okay and lastly, if people want to get in touch with you what's the best way?

Elizabeth: There's a contact form on my blog. That's probably best.

David: Thank you very much for your time! Wonderful insights and really fascinating to hear from someone outside the agile space.

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