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Interview with a MindManager Customer: “MindManager is an essential tool for the ‘accidental’ project manager,” says Jeff Kearns

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You might have noticed that my interview with project manager John Rogers and Gretta Pecl were focused on the topic of Alignment. What sparked my initial interest is this finding from a recent survey of more than 1,000 North American workers: 77% of respondents reported that not enough time is spent ensuring alignment on risks and opportunities. So what is the right amount of time and how can you ensure alignment?

Both John and Gretta had a different perspective on these questions, informed from their own experience. I’ve learned a great deal from speaking with these customers, including the last in this particular series: Jeff Kearns. His particular experience combines his service in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Marine Engineering Officer with that of running his own independent consultancy for the past twenty years, working in a variety of industries as a Lean Six Sigma practitioner and project manager.

Here’s what Jeff had to say.

Q: Within the context of a project, what does alignment mean to you — and why is it important?

Kearns: There are several interpretations of the word “alignment.” The project must be aligned with the business strategy. If there is no business case, the project is a non-starter. I focus on process improvement projects and use the Lean Six Sigma DMAIC methodology. If the Define stage, which includes stakeholder engagement, does not result in a common vision and understanding of the problem that needs to be solved, there is no alignment, and no real project.

Often, personalities get in the way of effective project design and communications. Some people are naysayers and blockers. Others may passively resist contributing to the project. There may also be cultural issues in the organization that get in the way, such as workers believing their opinions and ideas don’t matter.

If the project manager fails to empower his or her team members and work their way through these issues, the project will probably fail. That’s how important alignment is.

Q: According to research Corel recently conducted, roughly half of all failed projects die because of a lack of team alignment. What has your experience been?

Kearns: I do not have empirical data on this, only anecdotal. However, I would agree that most if not all, projects will fail in one or more areas if there is no alignment with the business strategy or vision. If the team does not have alignment, there is invariably wasted energy. Some team members may contribute more than their fair share to the project, but these efforts won’t translate into an efficient team effort, and that is what I mean by wasted energy.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your work with aligning people around a project’s objectives and direction?

Kearns: When working with immature organizations that do not understand the project management approach, or that are disorganized and unable to prioritize initiatives and balance the available resources with business needs, projects flounder. Team alignment issues are often associated with blockers and passive-aggressive team members. These individuals need to be identified early on and appropriate measures taken to turn them into enablers — or even have them replaced.

Q: What problems can lack of alignment cause during the implementation stage of the project?

Kearns: Lack of alignment is a failure of project leadership. If a successful project manager uses a gate process such as DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) and engages all appropriate levels of the organization from the outset, the chances of a project failing at the implementation stage are mitigated, but not eliminated. It all comes down to engagement, communication and leadership.

Q: How, specifically, has MindManager enabled you to achieve better team alignment on the projects you’re responsible for?

Kearns: MindManager is really good at the project brainstorming and planning stage. Its visual nature is ideal for creating a work breakdown structure and enabling the team to see the entire project at a glance. I use the organization chart map layout to create work breakdown structures.

MindManager can also be a good complement to a dedicated project management tool like Microsoft Project. I’ve seen some project managers open MS Project up and start entering rows of project tasks into the program’s Excel-like spreadsheet. As a result, team members see the tasks but not necessarily the context. Context can get lost in the endless rows of project data.

That’s one of the real advantages of MindManager: You can see tasks in the context of the overall project — the forest AND the trees, if you will. Once the tasks are defined, information regarding task duration, resources, and dependencies can be added in MindManager. Finally, the project design can be exported to another tool such as Microsoft Project for finalization of the plan.

Q: Do you use MindManager to brainstorm ideas and design projects with your team members?

Kearns: Yes I do, but the majority of the time, I do these things alone and bring team members in to adjust the WBS.

Brainstorming is definitely a strength of MindManager. It’s far superior to displaying a blank Word document on the screen at the front of the room and just typing ideas in a long list. Once your team members see how easy it is to contribute their ideas and quickly see them represented within the mind map, they tend to get really engaged with the process. It’s definitely an enabler in the team-building and alignment process.

There is one caveat, however: At the beginning of a brainstorming session, team members will see what amounts to a blank slate on screen. The project manager needs to give an appropriate introduction to the program and how it works. It’s not intuitively obvious how it works at the outset.

Q: What advice do you have for project managers who are challenged by getting their teams aligned around project objectives and implementations?

Kearns: From what I’ve seen, “accidental” project managers — executives who get thrust into the role without any formal training — tend to have a great deal of difficulty running projects. To get around this, learn as much as you can. Read case studies. Get training in how to properly define goals and objectives. It wouldn’t hurt to get a PMP (professional project manager) certification, too. You’ll learn the terminology and methodologies that will serve you well when you manage projects.

The biggest challenge for any project manager is communication. Do a combination of team meetings and one-on-one discussions to achieve buy-in. The biggest mistake a project manager can make is not listening. He or she needs to make individual team members feel empowered; that their ideas matter. The art of dialogue is discussed in many excellent reference books such as The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Q: Is there anything else we should know about MindManager and team alignment?

Kearns: MindManager is a tool. If it’s not used properly as part of a team effort, it will be difficult to achieve alignment and buy-in using only this tool. Learn your tool’s strengths and weaknesses, so you can properly apply them to your projects.

Finally, remember that MindManager is only a tool. It won’t create team alignment FOR you. You must facilitate that.

Want to hear more from Jeff?

You’re in luck! I was intrigued with Jeff’s mention of using a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to establish project team alignment. So much so, that we invited him to share his WBS process with us in a webinar. Watch the recorded webinar here to hear more from Jeff!

Jeff Kearns - Empower Your Prohects With a WBS Webinar


About the author: Julie Harrison joined Corel this past July as Senior Manager, MindManager Global Marketing. In her role, she’ll be focusing on content and campaigns for regions worldwide, since MindManager is currently in use by millions of people in thousands of global companies. She can be reached at  julie [dot] harrison [at] corel [dot] com.  

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