Back to the basics…

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I just returned from Mexico where I was a “Project Management Specialist Volunteer” for the Peace Corps. I was assigned to a Mexican government research center and my assignment was to help implement project management systems and processes.  Ten people had received PMI training and certification but no one had any practical experience.  They were spending a lot of time setting up a PMO, creating process documents and creating billing systems.  What they weren’t doing was talking to each other and training future project managers.

Unfortunately, the people who received the certification weren’t the ones managing the actual projects.  Management had decided to keep them working on the actual system and process side and assigned Mechanical Engineers to act as the Project Managers.  These engineers were both the designers and the managers.  Not an ideal situation but as we all know, due to budget constraints its often necessary to wear more than one hat during a project.  Another reason this isn’t an ideal situation is because not all engineers make good PMs.

In my case my project managers really didn’t want to be PMs.  They were all working on several projects in various stages and were more comfortable working on designs and machines then leading a project team and communicating with the customer.  Enter Stage Left – A know it all American who tells them to change.

Trying not to be that know it all American, I spent a lot of time listening and observing.  I was lucky that most of the engineers really wanted my advise and knowledge.  My initial findings were that they had no tools to help them manage their projects and that there was no communication between the different departments.  Every project was late and over budget and they were completely in the dark as to why.  I immediately implemented a “Dashboard” to help them manage the project’s activities and risks and weekly status meetings.

It was at this point that I noticed that there was an even bigger problem…they lacked Basic Business Skills.  The new PMs (engineers) didn’t know how to lead meetings.  The presentations they made were long, wordy and in most cases they didn’t cover important issues (trying to avoid conflict).  They also didn’t know how to communicate with each other and their clients. (I cover this in more detail in my “Not Another Meeting” blog).

So we went back to the basics.  Instead of just implementing PM ideals I implemented basic business practices.  Instead of just setting up processes and moving onto another project, my project became coaching these new PMs on the basics. I helped them lead weekly team status meetings, coached them on working with the clients and reviewed and edited their presentations and technical papers.

Here in the US this probably sounds unbelievable! In my case, while studying engineering in college, we were always working in teams, preparing project reports and making presentations.  Professionally, we write and or give project status reports to our team and superiors.  Its normal for us but maybe not so in other countries.  I think the more American influence a company has the more likely you will find these skills in practice but not in smaller foreign companies.

Are we right or are they?  I hate being the American bully that goes in and changes everything but I think in this case, implementing some of the basics certainly helped.  Now that I have returned to the US and am working with VCs that are trying to do work with Mexico I see how this is even more important.  Foreign startups must be able to present their ideas and business plans clearly in words that American’s understand.  So as you start to work in Mexico and other countries Internationally take time to assess what is really needed and don’t be afraid to go back to the basics.

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