Focus On Lisa Drake, IGT Project Manager

Lisa Drake is a project manager at IGT where she manages special projects related to pricing, IT, and customer promotions.   She also writes the project management blog, ‘Welcome to Lisa Drake’s Project Management Blog’.  Lisa is an  MBA graduate from the program I currently attend at UNR.  She recently came to my one of my MBA classes to speak and after hearing her I asked her if I could interview her, and to my delight she agreed. 


What projects have you accomplished lately and what value do you feel they’ve added for your company?

Over the past year, we have implemented a formal process for our Customer Promotions, where I manage each promotion from the beginning stages of brainstorming promotional ideas with IGT’s Executive Management Team, to working with our internal employees to implement our promotion offerings in SAP, to training sales and internal employees, and finally analyzing the success of each promotion.  Currently, I am working on developing several global policies, in regards to our slot machine cabinet pricing and part pricing, and developing a new process for our daily fee game theme process, which will benefit both our customers and increase several internal processes

What methods do you use to manage your projects?

I have used several different methodologies when managing projects at IGT, such as Waterfall, Rapid Application Development, Phased Development, and Prototyping.  It depends on the project’s timeline, size, and resources available, when trying to determining which would be the best approach to select for a given project.

What is the project culture at your company?

IGT is a fast-pace, cutting edge innovative gaming technology company, for which I feel our project culture is getting stronger each day with every project we initiate.  Our department is very fortunate to have a great group of employees that are well-rounded, experienced, highly motivated, and knowledgeable, which provides a great working environment to continually reach for what would be best for IGT and our employees in each project that is managed.

What aspects of managing projects to you enjoy the most?

I enjoy being able to help others make their job easier, by increasing efficiencies and implementing formal processes.  Also, I enjoy working with others, as it provides an opportunity to learn and create a great network of resources, so you build a useful “Who to Go To For Blank” list.

What aspects of managing projects do you find the most challenging?

I find the most challenging aspects of managing projects are change management, resolving team conflicts, and a short time frame to roll-out projects.

What is the one thing that you’ve learned as a project manager that you feel someone new to project management should know?

One of the biggest tips I recommend to projects managers is to simply take time to listen to your fellow team members, as several obstacles could be avoided early one in a project by listening to others first before speaking.  There is a reason why you have two ears and only one mouth.


Projects and the Small Business – Project Roles

The first step in understanding a project is to understand the roles in a project.  Roles are important because each role owns a portion of the project.  Roles may seem straight forward but are crucial to establishing clear responsibilities during the project.

Depending on the size of the project and the organization of the business there can be a number of different roles on a project.  These roles can be simplified for the purposes of a small business.

At a high level there are four key roles on any project:

(1) Project Customer – The customer is the reason why your business exists and so it follows that the customer is why you are doing this project in the first place.

(2) Project Team – Your project team is every one of your employees that you have assigned to work on this project.  These team members will have the most impact on the quality of the work done, and thus the quality of the outcome of your project.

(3) Business Owner – The business owner has to be the one that holds the flame of the original project purpose.  The idea that started it all . The business owner is also the role that will be most concerned that the project is completed on time and without costing more than it should.  The business owner also will have final say on scope.  What gets done and what doesn’t?

(4) Project Manager – The project manager oversees the coordination of all the projects activities.  This role is at the heart of the project in that they keep everything flowing.  They are the intermediary between all of the other project stakeholders (stakeholders are all of the members in the various roles as well as anyone else that may be impacted by the project whether they are other workers in your office or members of the extended community).

Each person is essential to the project and will effect how well the other people can do their jobs, so make sure that each team member is committed to the project and has the right skills and attitude to be a successful team member.


Projects and The Small Business – Purpose

A business may be started for many reasons:  to pursue a passion, provide a service, or to just work for yourself instead of someone else.  The main distinguishing purpose of a  business, versus a charity or a hobby, is to make money.

What is the purpose of a project?  The purpose of the project is to get things done.  Not just the everyday routine things, but a something new.  Of course, everyday routine tasks get things done.  So how is a project different?  A project transforms an idea into reality and has a definite beginning and end.

A small business might think of projects as jobs, contracts or other initiatives.  Projects are a temporary endeavor to CREATE PRODUCTS, PROVIDE A SERVICE, or create a DESIRED CONDITION.

There are a few benefits to a successful project:

(1) profits increase

(2) the business grows

(3) stress diminishes

Three desirable outcomes to a successful project that every business owner desires.

It seems easy enough.  Just come up with an idea and then get it done.  Who has time to think about managing this project?   It may be tempting to just go for it but projects are change processes, and with change comes opportunity but also risk.

Even if the project creates the change it was intended to, will it be worth the investment put into it?  What if it costs more and is less effective than initially anticipated?

A project needs to be managed.  Actively managing a project reduces the risk that either the project will not be successful or will not be profitable.

Project management is important, even to a small business, but a small business does not have the resources that a large company does to hire a professional project manager and create the extensive structure and documentation that a larger business does.  This does not mean that a simplified version of the standard project management tools cannot be used to increase the success of a small business project.

Since one of my goals with this blog is to help local business with their projects I will be taking a look at project management tools to try and simplify the concepts so that they can be applied to a small business.

Do you have a small business or have you assisted a small business with their projects?  What tools have you used to adapt the process to a small businesses needs?  What have you found is different about managing a project for a small business versus a large one?

Project Management Conflict Infographic

I usually do not care much for infographics but I found a great one  “Conflict in Project Management’ on the site Project Management for Girls.  It was prepared for the author by

The infographic shows the results of 35 responses given at a conference to the question, what are the causes of conflict?  The top responses were poor communication, project cost, and a lack of leadership.  Confused requirements is in the top six but a lack of clear requirements is definitely linked to communication issues.

Also, included in it are ego, lack of respect, lack of trust, and failure to see things from another party’s point of view.  These are some issues I touch upon in my last post ‘Commitment, Trust, Respect’.

What I’ve found is that a poorly run project will have a lot of this.  I think that many of these issues feed off of each other.  Poor project planning leads to confusion and the project soon becomes full of conflict as it runs over budget and no progress seems to be made.  Do you agree?  Does it seem like most of these caused of conflict can be avoided when the project is started off correctly?  Do these causes of conflict feed off of each other?

Commitment, Trust, Respect

As part of a project team effective working relationships are more critical than most other working relationships.  It is always preferable to have good working relationships with your co-workers, but this is easier when you sit in your respective cubes, saying hi and only occasionally needing something from them to get your job done.  It is an entirely different story when you are locked into deep collaboration with many coworkers, over many months (or in some cases years), and everyone’s success ultimately relies on the effective functioning of the team.   Under these conditions differences in the type of work each person does, working styles, and personalities that would normally not cause any strife become a lot more challenging to deal with.

I have recently been put on a project that has gone on for quite awhile and is under a lot of pressure to reach that magical, and as yet elusive, go live date.  The work is challenging and complex.  The members of the project are worn out and there is a real need to push past the frustration and come together as a team.  A few of us are new to the team and a few have been around awhile, but all of the team members are talented, well-adjusted and intelligent people.   Still, a lot of change on the project means that we all need to figure out how to best work together.

This task has me thinking about building and maintaining healthy relationships.  With some thought and reading I have realized that relationships are built on a few key principles.

Some key elements for healthy relationships:

  • Commitment
  • Trust
  • Respect

Commitment is so important.  Knowing that each member is committed to the project helps with the next two elements.  If my teammates don’t see my commitment to the project they won’t feel that they can rely on me (trust).  If I’m not committed to the project I won’t put the best of myself into it and they will lose respect for me and my work.  So, first priority on this project is to demonstrate my commitment to it.

Trust is also critical.  Trust encompasses so much and is so fragile.  It only takes one action to destroy another’s trust in me.  I’ve been considering the nature of trust and I have realized that it can be split into two types of actions.  Teammates need to trust me to do my part, and to keep my commitments.  If I say I will deliver on a task I need to do so.  More important than the tasks though, each team member needs to be able to trust me with their feelings and reputation.  I have to always think of, and speak of, a team member respectfully, even if I disagree with them or I am frustrated with them.  This needs to occur in how I speak to them, how I speak about them to others, and how I think about them.  Why do I want to control even how I’m thinking in the privacy of my own mind?  I want to do this because what I’m thinking comes out in everything that I communicate.  It may be non-verbal communication, but it is communication all the same.  I know that I do my best work when I feel I can trust those I work with.  Trust allows me to focus on the task at hand and give it my best efforts, keeping me from getting caught up in drama.  Recognizing this, I owe it to my teammates to trust me to contribute, do my best work, and to speak and think of them with respect and kindness.

Respect is a funny thing.  Songs and comedy routines, thinking Rodney Dangerfield here, are built around the concept.  Culturally I have been taught to give it grudgingly.  I want respect and expect it, yet how good am I at giving it?  Respect is all about taking the time to recognize the talents and contributions of others.  You know, a coworkers good qualities (and yes they have them, lots of them).    We are taught to be critical…or was that critical thinkers?  Yet, somehow this translates to being full of criticism.  I know I’m not alone in this.  I often hear others disparaging remarks about themselves or others.  The number one descriptive term I hear regularly from others is stupid, stupid system, stupid coworker, stupid me.  Respect is two pronged.  I want to make sure that I’m thinking of myself and others respectfully.     Respect must be given to be earned.  I have experienced too often that dreadful cycle of offense given, then defensiveness, offense given back…repeat, until relationships become frayed.

To recap, here is what I will be working on as I work to become a part of my new team:

1)      I will show my commitment to the project through my words and actions, demonstrating that I will give the best of myself to making the project a success.

2)      I will build trust by treating those around me with kindness and respect both through my actions and words.

3)      I will commit to safeguarding others feelings and reputations as if they were my own so that I can keep the trust that I build.

4)      I will strive to be critical only in the way that helps to build a better project, thus focus on processes and tasks, and I will not be critical in a way that undermines another’s feelings of value.

So there it is my little manifesto for better working relationships.  Wouldn’t it be great if as a team we could create these up front?  They are obvious when stated perhaps but like many seemingly simple things it does not take long to understand, but it may take a lifetime to master.

Neil Gaiman on the usual

Neil Gaiman has been one of my favorite writers for over a decade.  Yesterday  in his blog post ‘Some thoughts on writing, and driving in fog, and the usual‘, he wrote:

It’s a weird thing, writing. Sometimes you can look out across what you’re writing, and it’s like looking out over a landscape on a glorious, clear summer’s day. You can see every leaf on every tree, and hear the birdsong, and you know where you’ll be going on your walk.And that’s wonderful.Sometimes it’s like driving through fog. You can’t really see where you’re going. You have just enough of the road in front of you to know that you’re probably still on the road, and if you drive slowly and keep your headlamps lowered you’ll still get where you were going.And that’s hard while you’re doing it, but satisfying at the end of a day like that, where you look down and you got 1500 words that didn’t exist in that order down on paper, half of what you’d get on a good day, and you drove slowly, but you drove.

And sometimes you come out of the fog into clarity, and you can see just what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you couldn’t see or know any of that five minutes before.

And that’s magic.

Neil’s observation about the writing process is really an observation that can be applied much more widely.  It is an observation, in my experience, about life and all of the projects we take on during our lives.    That ability then, to make an observation that applies both to the the minute and global, and to do it with vivid prose, is why I’ve loved Neil Gaiman’s work for so long.  And that is magic.
I’ve had moments on projects, and during my life, where everything is fitting together perfectly and it all just seems, right.  I have also had many moments when I just push along through a project / life following a dim path.  The only thing Neil doesn’t address is what to do when the fog closes in and  you can’t even see the road anymore.  I hope that this doesn’t happen to him during his work, but I’d love to hear his thoughts on it.

Can Self-Improvement Translate to Project Improvement? Part 2 – Habits and Process Change

Projects transform some aspect of a business, and business transformation is synonymous with business process transformation.  So, what is a business process?  For every output there is a series of tasks, performed by systems or people, that were involved in translating inputs into that output.  These steps are the business process.

In the previous post “Can Self-Improvement Translate to Project Improvement?, Part 1 I talk about self improvement guidelines that can easily be applied to projects that improve a business and their project teams.  Yet, there is a deeper goal to embarking on improvement initiatives.  We want to change the way we live, or the way we do business, because we are hoping for a better result, whether that is a smaller pant size or more customers.  To do this we have to look at process change, where processes are all of the things we do every day, to produce the results we have today.

When you look at what we do every day a huge percentage of those activities are habits.  You don’t have to think too hard about them, you are in the habit of doing what you do the same way, each day, all week.  That is why learning a new job is so hard.  Nothing is a habit yet, so it takes a lot of personal resources to develop all of the habits around that new job.

So, if you want different results than you usually get, you need to do three things:

  1. Recognize what habits result in the current outcomes.
  2. Determine what habits will result in the outcomes you desire.
  3. Replace the old habits with new ones.

The first step, recognizing current habits, is a fairly straight forward process.  First you identify the end result.  Next you trace back through each step the tasks that go into producing that result until you reach the external input.  This process can be done at a high level with each system and person impacted identified.  This process has the added benefit of identifying any stakeholders that may have been missed in the project planning process.  Once the high level analysis has been completed drill into any processes that need to be understood in detail.

As an example, I will use a very simple problem that a friend of mine had at his office.

At my friends office they take checks and money orders for rent payments every month.  As the accountant he would sometimes try to look up payments made by money order that had been entered into the system and not be able to find them.

After researching the issue and speaking with his co-workers he determined that this was because there were a number of different employees who enter money orders into the system and that each one would choose different parts of the money order number to enter.   To fix this he needed to break the habits of every employee that enters money orders and get them to all consistantly enter the portion of the number he wanted to see.

The second step is not as straight forward.  It is not always easy to know what habits you need to develop to get the outcome you desire.  There are a lot of ideas about the best way to accomplish a goal.  For instance, there is a lot of very fierce debate on what to eat and how to exercise if your goal is to lose weight.   There is no one way to do anything, so some innovation to find something that works for your business may be necessary.

In the instance of the money order entry problem, my friend decided on having everyone enter the last five digits of the money order number if the number was longer than five digits.  Easy enough right?  Except that no one could seem to remember to do this consistently.

Breaking these habits and replacing them with the new ones you have decided on is not easy.  Habits, whether they are personal ones or established company business processes, (including the ones we use to manage projects) make life easy.  They are an adaptive response that helps us accomplish all the things we need to do each day.  Most of our habits depend on cues in our environment.  When we go to walk out of our front door, the entry way or coat closet cues us to put on our shoes.  When we stumble out of bed in the morning, head downstairs, and enter the kitchen we are cued to start coffee or brew tea.  For some of us it is the established route of driving by a Starbucks that cues us to stop and get our coffee.

One way we can break old habits and replace them with new ones is to change the cues that effect that person’s regular process.  The first way to add a cue is to change any written process documentation, either formal or informal that a person uses to do their job.  This is especially important if the task is not done frequently.

Cues can also be added by creating a step that causes a person’s attention to be focused momentarily on the task that has changed.   In the case of the money orders, I suggested that since the employee is using a highlighter to mark the check as entered, he could have the employee highlight the numbers of the money order they enter instead.  This would mark the document as having been entered and also show which numbers made it into the system.  Since this step is not part of the current process it should cue the employee to think about what they need to highlight and then remember that it should be the last five digits of the payment number.  This may or may not work for this group, and it is always good to ask the opinion of the group impacted, but you get the idea.

Other examples of cues could be an edit on an entry field that can give a user a warning if they enter something unexpected, sending a user an e-mail when a process has finished alerting them that their action is required, or having alerts appear on a dashboard.

So, I hope that this post has been helpful for thinking about process change during projects.  I’d love to hear about any experiences you may have had around managing change in projects.

Image Credit – Christophe Vorlet