Project Management in an Agency Model: Knowing The Business (Part 4)

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As we continue to explore Project Management in an Agency Model, we’ve reviewed the various opportunities for project managers in this model and we’ve also talked about what it means to “manage the experience”.  In this installment, we’ll discuss the importance of Knowing the Business as a way to further leverage the agency model to further the interests of your clients, your firm and your own career.

If your firm focuses on a specific vertical, you have an advantage in that you’ll be able to gain industry knowledge, valuable to your client, as your career progresses.  Apart from what you’ll learn on your projects and by talking to your clients, there are some other things you can do to learn your client’s business:

  • Talk to your Sales and/or Account Management teams on a regular basis.  Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can, not only about the current business climate in your clients’ vertical, but any anticipated changes, trends or …
  • Get the names of any good industry blogs read by your clients or by your Sales and/or Account Management teams.  Also, find out if there are any trade publications, particularly that focus on the application of current and new technologies to your client’s existing business.
  • Find any books or primers that discuss your clients’ business – again, where possible, focusing on the application of current technologies to overcome existing or potential barriers to your clients’ continued success.
  • Get active in the community.  Are there any SIGs (special interest groups) in your city that focus on your clients’ vertical?  These are not only good ways to expand your knowledge, but also to network and get to know others in your PM community
  • Talk to your colleagues.  You can benefit from the experiences of those who’ve been with your firm longer than you.  You can also benefit from getting fresh perspectives from new hires.  Finally, you can exchange thoughts and ideas with your colleagues on a regular basis, whether formally or informally.

For those of us whose firms perform work across multiple verticals, knowing the business is more of a challenge.  The best thing you can do for yourself in this model is to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  By this, I mean developing a way to come into a new industry and figure out what’s what.  This is fairly typical in project management anyway, as we oftentimes find ourselves having to quickly become “experts” in aspects of our clients’ business that are new to us.

  • Seek to understand and ask relevant questions.  Your focus should be to understand the business context and business impact of all aspects of the project.  You’re there to partner with your client to ensure they solve their problem(s) as efficiently and pragmatically as possible, within the guidelines of the project statement of work.  Make it a point of pride to admit that you don’t know, then find out.
  • If you find that asking certain general questions net positive results, write the questions down and develop a repeatable framework.
  • Leverage your general experiences.  The one thing that every engagement has in common is people, and people tend to generally behave the same in most circumstances.  Understanding your client’s motivation (both stated and unstated) is also key and can be gleaned from what you observe, based on what you’ve experienced in the past.
  • Listen to what your peers, colleagues and customers have to say.

While you can’t know everything about every business, you can learn how to learn.  That’s the essence of consulting and is very often the case with project management.  The best way that you can earn the role of ‘trusted advisors’ to your clients is by understanding the unique nature of their business and the challenges that they face, organizationally, operationally and technologically.  Your ability to leverage your firms capabilities to address your client’s business problems, delivered with your own ability to think creatively, collaborate and to advise your clients on how they can partner with your firm to give them a competitive advantage is the greatest contribution you can make to your clients, your firm and to your own career.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Managing the Experience (Part 3)

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In my first post, we discussed the agency model paradigm and how it differs from the internal PMO model.  We also talked about understanding of the opportunity, itself.  In Part 3, we look at how you manage the client experience from end to end, both externally from the client’s perspective and internally within your firm. 

As a project manager in an agency model, your strategic goal is simple; when your client hangs up the phone after talking to you, they should think “If only ALL my vendors were like THIS vendor, then I’d be set!  My project manager and the project team have my back.  They ‘get it’!”  How can you achieve this goal?  Let’s start with the external side; what your client can see:

  • Execute and Deliver:  Your tactical goal is to manage the solution of a problem which means first and foremost, you and your team must execute and deliver.  Solve the problem in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost to the client.
  • Make It Safe To Walk Down The Hall: Understand what your client needs to know so that they can safely walk out of their office, knowing that if anyone asks about their project, you’ve updated and prepared your client in their language to speak knowledgeably about the project – particularly with regard to project risks or issues.
  • Details, Details: Remember the little things, such as spell checking all your documents and emails, ensuring any re-used artifacts have the former client’s name removed and the new client’s name included, getting people’s names right, etc.  This also includes preparing your project team for on-site client meetings, making sure the team is appropriately dressed and sufficiently updated on the nature of the client and the desired outcome of the meeting.  I won’t go into every detail here, but understand that the little details can have a strong impact on you and your firm’s brand with the client.
  • Under Promise / Over Deliver: Make sure you build in any cushion when making commitments.  Your goal is to “under promise/over deliver,” so it’s important to make sure you understand the other commitments made by people on your project team who are also assigned to other projects.  Ultimately, your client needs to feel as though their project is the ONLY project, so your ability to understand, negotiate and ensure proper resourcing within your firm will have a strong impact on your ability to deliver.
  • Proactive Communications: Your client should never need to call you for an update – you should be calling them.  Be proactive and anticipate your client’s needs, then meet them.
  • Keep It Business-Focused: Your communications with your clients – even when technical in nature – should be such that they can be understood in terms of your client’s business operations.  This not only shows respect for your client, but it also ensures that you give them information in language that they can easily understand and share with other people at their firm, thus helping your client look great.

Managing the experience also has an internal component.  Most agencies share services such as creative and production design, development, QA, business analysis/strategy, etc.  Therefore, you’ll have to manage the experience from a perspective that won’t be immediately visible to your client:

  • Relationships:  Your ability to build, maintain and leverage relationships with all the functional groups within your firm is key to your ability to delivery a strong, consistent and positive client experience.  Make sure you know key people in all groups, particularly the people you’ll need when escalating an issue.  Know who the strong players are, as well as the weaker links.  Learn how to work with and, if necessary, work around the weaker players on the various teams.  Until weaker players leave or are “enabled to leave,” they work at your firm and they’re who you have – it’s on YOU to learn how to get them to deliver.
  • Accountability: Learn to respectfully but consistently hold people accountable for delivering.  This means being very clear on what you need, when you need it and what will happen if you don’t get it.  If you are waiting on a deliverable from an unreliable resource, it’s on YOU to check in a little more frequently that you “should have to”.
  • Respect: Be respectful of the other members of your project team, as they most likely have other commitments to other project managers on other projects.  Most agencies leverage shared service models, so while your customer needs to feel as though their project is the only project, you have to be smart enough to understand that within your firm, this is not  the case.  Respect and understand this fact, then collaborate/negotiate accordingly.
  • Risk Planning: Make sure you communicate any tight deadlines, making your needs and expectations clear, potential impacts understood and then hold the team accountable.  Follow the adage of “inspect what you expect” and don’t leave yourself open to surprises.  If you have resources working through the weekend on a tight deadline, do you have everyone’s cell numbers?  Do these resources know you need them to work through the weekend?  Do their managers know, as well?  Take some time to think about what COULD happen (as opposed to what SHOULD happen) and plan accordingly.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: As the project manager, it is your responsiblity to make sure everyone has the information required to do their jobs and to deliver for your client.  Make sure you’ve share the right information with the right resources and over-communicate when necessary.  Make sure you tell team members what you need, when you need it and clearly explain the business impact if you don’t get it.

Ultimately, Managing the Experience is about two things; relationships and delivering.  You leverage internal relationships to ensure your shared project resources within your firm meet their commitments to you and your client.  You likewise leverage relationships with your client to collaborate as one team to solve the business problems at hand.   

Delivering a powerful and positive experience helps ensure that the next time your client has a problem, their first instinct is to call your firm first.  By doing so, you not only achieve your tactical goal of solving the client’s business problem, but you also achieve a valuable and lasting strategic goal; building a lasting and mutually beneficial partnership to help your client achieve and maintain a competitive advantage over their competitors and to help your firm grow revenues organically.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Understanding The Opportunity (Part 2)

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In my first post on this topic, I talked about how project management in an agency model differs from project management in an internal PMO model, primarily that in the agency model, the client chooses the firm from among other firms.  This presents a unique opportunity for the project manager and this post discusses that opportunity.

Throughout the sales process, clients meet and interact with account managers, account executives, sales personnel and even with the firm’s senior management.  Yet the client’s lasting perception of the firm rarely comes from these interactions.  Firm branding is a result of your client’s direct experience with your firm, which is almost always through the project manager.  Given this reality, the project manager has an opportunity to brand the firm, develop a strong partnership and act as business development resource.

Every email you send, everything you say or do, every issue you resolve, even how you prep your project team for interaction with the client; EVERYTHING you do and manage on the project brands your firm.  Therefore, be mindful of how you use this opportunity to not only add value for your client, but to present your firm as a trusted advisor (as opposed to an order-taker) to your client.

Even though everyone on the project team – development, creative, testing and business analysis resources – doesn’t necessarily report to you, you still are accountable for delivering an outstanding client experience as you work to solve the business problem(s) outlined in the client’s statement of work.  Therefore, build solid relationships within your firm so you can make the most of this opportunity as you work with other functional teams in the SDLC.

Earning the role of a trusted advisor helps lay the foundations for a strong and mutually beneficial business partnership between the firm and the client. Project managers should therefore be mindful of the experience they manage, end to end. Work to add value for your clients but also strive to ensure the next time your client has a problem, their first instinct is to call YOUR firm first. This is the opportunity before you as a project manager.

Project managers also have the opportunity to gather business intelligence on the client’s other needs and how the firm can assist.  I’ll discuss this more in a future post.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Understanding and Leveraging the Strategic Opportunities (Part 1)

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Simply stated, a project solves a business problem at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time.  In an internal PMO model, the work is performed as part of an inter-company allocation with the “client” usually having no choice as to who will perform the work.  In an agency PMO model, the client chooses the firm from among other service providers with the business problem being solved in exchange for client payment.  In the internal model, the business relationship is by necessity; in the agency model, by choice.  The strategic opportunity for a project manager in an agency model, therefore, is to influence this choice to the mutual advantage of the client and the firm.

Project managers in both models are responsible for managing project outcomes and for providing strong communication, planning, project control (especially scope and risk management) and regularly managing expectations.  In both models, the tactical duties are the same – ensuring that the project solves the business problem in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost.  To that point, clients are more likely to be accepting of a project that runs over budget and behind schedule, provided that it solves the business problem.

Understanding the nature and context of the business problem to be solved is a step toward understanding and leveraging the strategic opportunities available to project managers.  Doing so will help you understand your client’s business and inherent challenges but most importantly it is a key element in earning the role of a trusted advisor to the client.  Trusted advisors have an advantage over service providers, as the trusted advisor is more than just an extra pair of hands; it’s an extra pair of hands with a brain that “gets it” from the client’s perspective.

Trusted advisors and the firms for which they work get asked back, specifically because their words and actions differentiate the firm from other service providers.  They do more than take orders; they add value by leveraging understanding, applying their own knowledge and making their client’s success their mission.  Project managers in an agency model should leverage the opportunities below to initially and continually earn the role of ‘trusted advisor’ role the course of managing client projects:

By understanding and leveraging the strategic role of a project manager in an agency model, project managers can add significant value to their firm.  They can use every email, phone call, discussion or action as an opportunity to consistently brand the firm and deliver a strong, positive experience to the client while solving the business problem as scoped in the Statement of Work.

In the next posts, I’ll cover each of the bullet points above in more detail.  The end goal is to help your firm build lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships with clients, which not only helps each party in the business relationship, but helps you grow as a professional both in skill and in personal brand.

Two Simple Questions To Avoid Value-Free Change

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Often times we’re tempted to add new processes, new templates or tools, modify existing procedures, re-organize – you name it.  Sometimes such changes are called for, but other times they’re performed for the sake of performing them.  Change for its own sake is never good.  It can be a drain on time, resources and on morale.

When confronted with such ideas – whether your own or from others – try asking these two simple questions:

  1. What Business Problem Will This Solve?: Is the proposed change in response to something that is having an identifiable impact on business operations?  If so, how will this change help?
  2. What Will This Change Allow Us To Do Tomorrow That We Cannot Do Today?: Little more than a restatement of the above, this simply asks the question from another angle.  It’s important to understand how things will change as a result of any new processes, tools, etc.  Then….ask yourself, “So what?”

While you can apply these questions to process or organizational changes, you can also use them when determining whether to send an email, schedule a meeting or conference call, etc.  The idea is to simply be mindful of what you are about to do.  Think of it as an internal CBA on the fly or, to borrow a quote from my friend, John Kennedy, “Break it down, think it through, execute!”

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese


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A friend of mine out in Baltimore used to tell me, “Should-hood leads to Shit-hood”.  This is particularly applicable to those of us in management roles.  Whether you’re managing a project, a team or even your own life, focusing on the ‘should’ can be a good thing or a bad thing.

 “Should-hood” – the mindset of focusing on what should be – isn’t bad in the right context.  Focusing on what ‘should be’ is how we apply our core values to our own words and actions.  ‘Should’ is a very powerful mindset…..when applied to oneself.  The problem comes when we focus on what ‘should  be’ when it comes to the words and actions of others.

 There are countless factors that impact everything we do and while we have varying amounts of influence over each of these factors, rarely do we have control of them.  The good news is that there is one element in every situation over which we have 100% control – ourselves.  The bad news is that we often focus on those elements that, even on our best day, we can only hope to influence….which inevitably leads to “Shit-hood” – that terrible feeling that nothing is as it should be and that life and work are hopeless. 

 So what to do?:

  •  Accept the fact that you can only hope to influence anything or anyone that isn’t you.  Even if you hold a gun to someone’s head and tell them to start dancing, they can always say “screw you – shoot me.” 
  • Instead, focus your efforts on the elements that are 100% within your control – your own words and actions
  • With this fact in mind, work to observe and listen to others to gain an understanding of what IS
  • With an understanding and acceptance of what IS, focus your energy on what you can do, say or write to influence those elements of your work that you need to manage in order to be successful.

 Ultimately, “should” is a word best used when looking in the mirror.  Obsessing on what ‘should be’ when dealing with others will provide you countless ways to be frustrated and unhappy.  Focus your energy on those elements of every situation that are 100% within your control – your own words and actions – and avoid ‘Shit-hood’.  It’s not that nice a neighborhood anyway.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

“Good News / Bad News” vs. “News Delivered / News Withheld”

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I don’t agree with the whole “good news/bad news” paradigm.  There is only “news delivered” and “news withheld.”  The difference is whether the news is delivered well or delivered badly.

It’s tempting to withhold “bad news.”  Sometimes we hope that things will change and we won’t have to deliver the news.  Other times, we hope that we’ll have more and better information later.  In both cases, we tend to do the wrong thing by failing to share what we know with those who have an interest in knowing it.  This doesn’t change the nature of the news, but it may complicate your ability to resolve the situation.

The worst way to deliver such news is to put it off until you have no choice, then deliver the news late.  If you think the recipient is going to be unhappy when they hear the news you withheld from them, just think about how angry they’ll be (with YOU, by the way) when they find out that you ‘ve known for a while but didn’t bother to tell them.  You could try to cover up this fact too, but now you’re complicating things even further.

Another way to deliver such news badly is to do only that – deliver the news.  You do a disservice by showing up and only presenting a problem.  What’s the context?  What’s the impact?  What should we do?  You need to do more than show up and deliver the news.  You need to provide leadership.  A better approach is to do one of two things:

  1. Deliver the news right away with assurances that you/your team is looking into options to address the issue and that you will have options and a recommendation forward by a specific date/time; or
  2. Get with your team first to develop the options and a recommendation forward, THEN go deliver the news, options and recommendation.

This is just the same approach at two different points in time.  You’ll judge which is most appropriate based on the nature of the news and the business impact to the stakeholder.  You also have to consider the temperment of the stakeholder in framing your delivery (that’s another post entirely).  The goal is to get everyone informed, in agreement and focused on addressing the issue as a team and moving the ball forward.

We’ve all played “How Did This Happen??” where a customer or business partner demands timelines, root cause analyses, written assurances that this will never happen again, etc.  While there is value in “How Did This Happen??” in the right context, this exercise is usually intended as a punishment or to send a message.  This is more typical of an ‘Us and Them’ relationship and not the product of a true partnership.  Producing timelines doesn’t solve the problem.  Avoid this.

I like this simple approach.  Provide the recipient with the following:

  • High level details of the issue: “What happened?”
  • Business impact: “Why should YOU care?”
  • Options (including pros and cons for each): “What CAN we do?”
  • Recommendation (yours or your team’s): “What SHOULD we do?”
  • Request a decision

If you do this verbally, follow-up with a summary in writing, capturing all of the above and cc’ing other appropriate stakeholders (particularly any members of your team who provided input and who may also be implementing the solution).  Root cause analyses and lessons learned come after the fact, but initially you want a team commitment to solving the problem, not in assigning blame.

Delivering “bad news” does not have to be painful, but you do no favors by withholding information.  Go ugly early, but provide options toward getting beautiful again.  Don’t deliver problems – deliver solutions.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Staying Focused On Your Agenda

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I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, as I’m working on a post about the importance of having and working a strategic agenda that I haven’t yet posted.  However, a recent post on Morgan Hunter’s Lotus MBA blog made me think about this simple test that I’d like to share. 

Keeping your professional and personal long-term objectives in mind:

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I REALLY want?” (you have to ask it like that, with the emphasis added)
  2. Then ask yourself, “Is what I am about to do/say/write really going to get me closer to what I really want?”
  3. Finally, ask yourself, “HOW?

This is a good way to make sure you are advancing your strategic agenda while not saying, writing or doing something that you’ll regret.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese


Know Your Options: Yes, No and “24 Hours”

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We’ve all worked with the person who never, ever says “No.”  You know the guy; he cheerfully says, “Yes!” to every request….then finds himself snowed under and in a terrible mood when all the bills come due, working long hours, not responding to emails or voice mails and all too often, not delivering.  This career-limiting approach damages your reputation and the reputations of anyone who needed you to keep your commitments in order to deliver on their commitments.

When you get a request, you have three options: “Yes,” “No,” and “Give me ’24’ hours.”  Let’s take a look at each:


All of us want to say ‘yes’ to most requests.  Part of this is the drive to add value and the other is the desire to be seen as someone who is part of the team and who doesn’t play “not my job.”  However, “Yes” is a one way answer.  Once you’ve said it, you now have to deliver and there will be little that your boss can do to get you out of the particular corner in which you’ve painted yourself.  This doesn’t mean you should never say ‘Yes’; rather, this means that when you DO say “Yes,” make damn sure you have the bandwidth, resources and knowledge to deliver on your commitment.  You, your brand and your stakeholder(s) are all at stake.

For those of us with teams, a “yes” often times means committing your team to work that THEY may not have the bandwidth to deliver.  In this case, go with the “24 Hours” approach, letting the requestor know that you will talk with your team and get back to them on if/when you can deliver on their request.  Don’t “yes” your team into a commitment on which they can’t deliver (and thanks to Morgan Hunter who posts at Lotus MBA for this important reminder).


We rarely like to refuse a request at work.  As above, this comes from our desire to add value and to be viewed as someone who is an active contributor to the business.  However, sometimes “No” is the right answer – particularly if you don’t have the bandwidth or resources to deliver.  This is where having a clear, strategic agenda pays off.  You can ask yourself if fulfilling the request will also provide an opportunity to move the ball forward in advance of your or your team’s strategic goals.  Further, you can always backtrack from “No.”

When you have to say “No,” include a “but.”  Here’s what I mean; if you cannot fulfill the request yourself, you have the option of connecting the requestor with someone else who can fulfill their request.  This way, you add value by connecting the requestor to a resource who is able to help out.   Now, please don’t make the mistake of saying something like, “I think Joe can do that – let me check with him.”  Although you didn’t necessarily make a commitment on Joe’s behalf, you DID mention his name in relation to the request and if he can’t deliver…..well, you get my point.  No names until you’ve checked with “Joe.”

Make a point of following up with the requestor to make sure your referral was able to help.  Also, if “Joe” says “Yes,” follow-up with Joe, too.


If you think you may be able to deliver on the request, but you don’t have enough information to give a definitive “yes” or “no,” ask if you can get back to the requestor in a specified amount of time (“24 hours” is just an example).  Keep the timeframe minimal and make sure you remember to get back to the requestor within the timeframe that you have set.

Refer to Options 1 or 2 once you give your answer, and be clear if there are any contingencies in your response (especially if your “Yes” relies on someone else to deliver something first).


Ultimately, we all want to add value at work and to enjoy a well-earned reputation for being a reliable and consistent member of the team.  This doesn’t necessarily mean saying “Yes,” to everything, but it does require you to clearly judge your ability to fulfill a request to meet or exceed the requestor’s expectations and being very clear about your answer.  Also, “No” and “24 Hours” provide your boss with some options if you run into trouble, but “Yes” is “Yes;” you have to deliver.  Be honest, be practical and be consistent.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

The Responsibility of Judging

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One of my pet peeves is when someone says its wrong to judge.  Apart from the fact that the statement itself is a contradiction, I would challenge anyone to go for more than five waking minutes without making some kind of judgment.  Judging in an inescapable part of being a conscious entity and in the end, we all have a responsibility to judge.  Therefore, it is essential that we learn to judge responsibly.

Leaders must be willing and able to make difficult decisions that are fair, reasonable, consistent and in the best interests of the business and the people who make up that business.  This doesn’t mean that we anoint ourselves as judge and jury about everyone in the office, but it DOES mean that we have a responsibility from time to time to make judgments – sometimes difficult ones – as part of our role in protecting the organization’s culture.

Some things to consider in applying this principle:

  • Fairness: First and foremost, your standards must be fair and reasonable.  Holding oneself and others to unattainable standards makes no sense.  At the same time, you’re doing no one a favor if your standards are too lenient.  Expect the best out of yourself and others and act accordingly.
  • Consistency: Apply your standards consistently, irrespective of the individual or situation.  Consistency is not only the right thing to do, but it also builds your personal brand as someone who has integrity.
  • Tact: There’s no need to hold forth on your standards or how you view the act of judging.  Let your actions speak for you.  This isn’t about branding yourself as ‘the judgement guy’; it’s about fidelity to your principles.
  • Learn: While its essential to maintain integrity and consistency, you also need to be open to one very important fact; you could be wrong.  In the end, it’s better to BE right than to APPEAR right, so always be open to assessing your own thinking.  Wanting to BE right, means you have to be open to being straightened out from time to time.

We get into trouble when we judge others in a way that isn’t fair.  We also get into trouble when we take it upon ourselves to judge unnecessarily.  As leaders, we need to make judgments about people when we hire, coach up, coach out and promote our teams.  Accept the responsibility of judging and do so with integrity, consistency and tact.  Exemplary leadership demands consistency, leadership by example and fairness.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese