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In the wake of Covid-19, The world of work has changed, and you have 90 days to get to grips with it. Michael Watkins’s book, The first 90 days is the definitive book on how to traverse the transition period into a new leadership role. It contains proven strategies for getting up to speed faster, whilst getting to grips with culture and politics, and avoiding common transition traps.

The first 90 days post Covid19

The Coronavirus has been a massive disruptor on a global scale. And as I write this article, the long-term effects on the economy and the world of work are still only starting to emerge. The first 90 days was written back in 2003 offering strategies for new leaders, helping them successfully transition into new leadership positions. But the key lessons from The first 90 days are relevant to a broader audience. Covid19 has hit people and businesses in different ways and there are many types of transition in play. Personal transitions into new roles is a common one, but people returning to work after a period furloughed are also experiencing transitions. Individuals who may not have changed their job titles are suddenly finding themselves needing to adopt new critical success strategies as organizations respond to the changing marketplace, accelerating transitions, and rewriting business plans.

Michael Watkins had leaders in mind when he wrote this book, but the key lessons are relevant at all levels. Applied correctly, this Harvard Business Review book will help you while you are successfully transitioning to a ‘new normal’ whether you are a junior PMO Analyst or an executive-level portfolio project management leader.

In this article, we explore the key strategies from the book and look at how you can apply them in a post Covid19 world. We will help you improve your personal effectiveness and apply critical success strategies to ensure you are able to prepare yourself and your organization for the future.

The first 90 days of critical success strategies

The critical success strategies outlined fall into 9 key areas:

  • Promote yourself
  • Accelerate your learning
  • Match strategy to the situation
  • Secure early wins
  • Negotiate success
  • Achieve alignment
  • Build your team
  • Build coalitions
  • Keep your balance

The first 90 days – ten slides in ten minutes

The ten slides in ten minutes challenge is something we do regularly on our #PMOwfh meetups on Wednesday afternoons. On Wednesday 24th June, I presented a 10-in-10 presentation on The first 90 days. Here what I had to say below:

Promote yourself

Relax. We are not talking about getting yourself a PMO YouTube channel and focusing on becoming the PMO equivalent of a Kardashian (although, if that is your goal, don’t let me hold you back)! Remember this is a book targeting leaders at all levels as they move into new roles. When we talk about promoting yourself here, we are talking about promotion into a new role.

Now bear with me because this may sound a little odd. But you do not have to wait for your manager to decide to promote you. If you want a new role you can visualize yourself in the role you want and start adopting the associated behaviors and strategies.

Imagine you have been out of the office for several months. Maybe you have been working from the corner of the couch, interrupted by demands for snacks and entertainment from family members and pets every five minutes. Finally, the office is reopening. You’ve attended the briefings on Zoom, and you know what to expect. Hand sanitizer and one-way systems, meeting room capacity slashed and air conditioning turned up to the max.

But your role will have changed too, and there seems to be less obvious guidance around that. How will you fit into this new world? How will you adjust to this ‘new normal’? Perhaps you had concerns about how you were performing in your role even prior to the lockdown. Maybe you felt there were opportunities to change the way you worked, and how you were perceived?

The promotion you are awarding yourself here is a mental one – a mindset shift. Take a moment and imagine the role how you want it. Perhaps you imagine yourself being the expert everyone comes to for advice. Perhaps you see yourself leading with a new management style. Perhaps you simply see yourself setting new standards for delivery and innovation. Maybe you are finally making the transition into line management.

Whatever your self-promotion looks like, ask yourself this. What is different about the new you? How do you behave, what skills do you have?

Once you have awarded yourself this promotion, you will want to hit the ground running. But to do this you will need to prepare. Take time to weigh up your strengths and weaknesses. A tool such as a personal SWOT analysis can help here. Do not just look at this exercise from a skills perspective – consider it from an enjoyment perspective too. Which areas of the role you visualize yourself in are the ones in which you most enjoy solving problems? Which are the areas in which you are least eager to solve problems? Overcoming these weaknesses, or vulnerabilities is hard. But it is not insurmountable. It requires a combination of self-discipline, team building and advice, and counsel. Be the person you want to be, surround yourself with the people who can help you and from whom you can learn.

This kind of self-promotion exercise is hard because many of the barriers will lie within you. To overcome them and you will need to think hard about how you will compensate for weaknesses and best utilize your strengths. You will also need to consider external forces, such as relationships with your manager or people’s expectations of you. How will you overcome these?

Self-promotion is something that you should try on a regular basis. Promote yourself regularly to the role you want to be in and make the associated mental shift. You will be surprised to discover that if you can make the mindset change, others around you will start to do so too.

Accelerate your learning

Leaders at all levels are continuously learning, and now it is more important than ever. I’m not talking about getting back into the classroom and updating your certificates such as Prince2.

The first 90 days advocates a virtuous cycle of information gathering, analyzing, hypothesizing, and testing. And the first step is defining your learning agenda.

When we think about learning, we often think about some of the skills and capabilities we want to develop. Over at our online PMO learning site, we have a variety of courses and learning opportunities ranging from agile software delivery through risk management and coaching. If you have not had a chance up until now, then you really should take a look and see what’s on offer! But the learning we are talking about here is much more focused on the role that you have promoted yourself into. It is common for PMO and project management people to argue that their skills are fully portable: it does not matter whether you project manage software, or project manage shipbuilding, the underlying practices are the same. But focusing on these ‘generic’ areas of learning should only be a small part of your learning agenda. It is important to understand your organization.

Think you knew your organization before the pandemic came along? Chances are a lot has changed since then. Your organization may be one of those that is fighting for survival. Even companies that have benefited from the lockdown such as Netflix have had to embark on massive pivots to cope with social distancing on film sets and to cope with massively changing release schedules from major studios. Initiatives that were urgent and important may suddenly be irrelevant, whilst other new initiatives, such as automation, may have moved to the top of the agenda.

Corporate risk is also an area that has come rapidly into focus. How are risk mitigation strategies and contingency plans for supply chains holding up? What about distribution?

The more you start looking, the less you understand. Ask yourself:

  • What strategy is the organization pursuing now? How does that align with the long-term vision and the published strategy?
  • Which lurking surprises could detonate and affect your project portfolio?
  • Who can cope with this level of change (and who cannot)?
  • In what areas is the business most likely to face still challenges in the coming year?
  • What are the most formidable barriers to making needed changes? Are they technical? Cultural? Political?

These types of questions will help you identify the areas you need to add to your learning agenda. Answers will come from a variety of sources, both inside and outside your organization. Take time to identify the people who can help inform and educate you as you position yourself to effectively support the organization.

Finally, create a plan for your learning. If you have been off work, what will you learn before you return? If you are joining a new company, what analysis can you undertake before your first day? If you are already established, who do you want to meet with to broaden your knowledge and learn more about critical business processes?

Match Strategy to Situation

One of the biggest frustrations I experience is when I work with project managers who have only learned one framework or delivery process and are convinced it is the only possible way to deliver. This used to be the case with Prince2. Now it seems that agilists and scrum masters are some of the worst offenders! There is no single silver-bullet strategy that works in every situation. It is important to understand the situation you are facing and to match your strategy to it accordingly.

The first 90 days uses a model called STARS to focus on four business situations: Startup; Turnaround; Realignment and Sustaining Success. Each of the situations described in the stars model comes with its own relative challenges and opportunities that will require different responses. A PMO manager arriving into an organization where delivery has ground to a halt and the business is being starved of cash flow is unlikely to be successful if they start by introducing new templates and governance gateways. It is important to read the room and identify the most appropriate strategy for the situation. Questions to consider are how much time should be spent learning vs doing, how much time should be spent on offense vs defense, and what quick wins can you achieve that will help the organization with the business situation.

Secure Early Wins

Whether you are trying to figure out what ‘new normal’ means, or whether you are setting up a brand new delivery function, Quick wins are an important way to boost your credibility, get people on your side, motivate others and create value for the organization. As with the previous section about matching Strategy to Situation, it is important to understand the situation and culture. Implementing a new PPM system may feel like a quick win for you, but is it what the business wants? And is it what your manager is looking for?

Negotiate Success

Let’s be realistic. It is going to take a long time for the disruption of Coronavirus to settle down. In the meantime, there are likely to be frequent changes in priority. Organizational structures will change. Digital transformations will be accelerated. All of this means that the expectations people have of you will change frequently. Heraclitus’ quote “The only constant in life is change” has rarely felt truer.

To be successful, you will need to negotiate your success. Seek to clarify expectations early and often. Not just with your manager, but with others you engage within the organization too. Remember the early wins we talked about? Make sure you deliver those for your manager and use the social capital from that to invest in other projects. But what if your manager is always too busy for your 1:2:1’s? The harsh reality is that negotiating success means taking responsibility for making relationships work. Schedule the 1:2:1s yourself rather than waiting for your manager. If your manager cancels on you repeatedly, try a technique that I used to use. Maintain a list of items to review with your manager and keep it on you. Look for opportunities to grab impromptu meetings. Perhaps your manager has had a last-minute diary cancellation that you could grab? Maybe you could grab ten minutes to chat on the way to the sandwich shop at lunchtime? When you get time. Make it valuable. Think about what you want to say, and what order you want to raise issues in. Plan the conversations out and be prepared for questions. If you are seeking funding for something new, make sure you have worked out the business case and are prepared to support it.

Achieve Alignment

The first 90 days urges us to look at the alignment of strategy with:

  • Structure – how people are organized.
  • Systems – the processes used to produce value
  • Skills – The capabilities of the various groups of people in the organization
  • Culture – The values and norms that shape peoples collective behaviors

If you work in a PMO, then you should almost certainly be looking at the alignment of projects in the portfolio with the strategy of the organization. With changes in priority, consider how the outcomes of your projects are likely to change. If they are misaligned, then maybe there is an opportunity to pivot and realign. At this stage, it would be prudent to increase your awareness of the skills and resources available in your organization. If you have an innate understanding of available skills and resources, you are optimally placed to identify opportunities for vertical alignment (top-down/bottom-up) and horizontal alignment (between projects and teams).

Build your team

Highly performing teams can be assessed through the following lenses:

  • Competence
  • Judgment
  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Relationships
  • Trust

Whether you are a team manager or a team member, you have your part to play in its overall success. If the team is successful, then you are successful.

Build Coalitions

How many times have you seen things happen outside of the usual signoffs and process flows because someone had a relationship with someone? These informal networks are everywhere and they are relevant both in terms of getting things done, and blocking things from being done.

It may be tempting to ignore such things. You may even be proud of the fact that you ‘rise above the politics’. But to ignore this shadow organization would be at your peril. Better to identify the key players and visualize relationships with an influence map. Once you understand how these natural links work, you can identify your supporters, opponents, and the so-called ‘convincibles’. This gives you a powerful network to tap into and to use as a basis for building your own coalitions. Get it right, and you will end up with a structure like the one shown below. Gaining allies will help you recruit others, which increases your resource base, which increases the likelihood of your ideas and initiatives being successful. This success helps you gain more allies, and so the circle continues.

Keep your Balance

A final point to make is to keep yourself balanced. The strategies outlined here (and in the book) are proven strategies to build momentum and accelerate transitions. But it is important to look after yourself. There has been a great deal of focus on Wellbeing in the workplace over the last few years, and this can only be a good thing.

Organizations such as Investors In People are leading the way and it is great to see more organizations training mental health first aiders. But as we enter ‘new normal’ there are going to be fresh demands on people, teams, and organizations and it is important that you undertake regular self-assessments of your personal wellbeing.

Building a support network around you is important. Some will come from friends and family. Some will come from the coalitions that you have built within the organizations. Some will come from social and networking groups, such as PMO Flashmob.

Your next 90 days

Whatever your next 90 days have in store, there are proven strategies here that will help you on your journey whether you are established in your role, going through a massive transition, or starting in a new role. If you are a leader, then there are some great strategies to follow. If you do not see yourself as a leader, let me tell you this. Leadership is not about titles or hierarchy. It is about the difference you make and the influence you have. Those without hierarchical authority can still commit small acts of leadership that will not only get you recognized but will make a real difference to the people within your organization. As Michael Watkins’ says: Practice these techniques now and refine them through the many transitions you will face in the future.

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