Take the People out of the Problem: Senior Project Manager, Dr. Rukhsana Malik & Her Whiteboard

21 Jan

RukhsanaIt was a pleasure to share a table with Dr. Rukhsana Malik at last year’s 2012 WXN Top 100 Gala. Her warmth and openness made it impossible not to like her, and impossible not to pick her brain. During our conversation, I learned that Rukhsana is not only an accomplished physicist who studied at CERN before moving to Canada, but is also a hugely in-demand Senior Project Manager (consultant) in the telecom industry – working on multi-million dollar projects, getting results that both save and earn companies millions in return.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I have to say we’re extremely fortunate today to have Rukhsana share with us how she tackles problem solving whenever hired as a project manager. You may be surprised by her approach.

In her own words, Rukhsana is a “forward-thinking, pro-active and results-oriented Executive/Project Manager with 15+ years of in-depth work experience in the design and delivery of cost-effective, high-performance information technology infrastructures and applications to address complex business problems.” (Linkedin) She knows what’s she talking about regarding making business work, and, using the whiteboard as just one of her tools, she sets projects back on track.

We recently had the privilege to interview Rukhsana, and she had some fantastic insights. In this article, you’ll received the chunked down version where you’ll learn:

1) The biggest problem in the majority of corporations.

2) Why the concept of what is ‘critical’ might be causing confusion.

3) How you can engage your team’s creativity & curiosity.

4) Why you need to take the people out of the problem.

The Biggest Problem

“Everybody is looking for someone to blame. That is not the solution,” Rukhsana shares with me as we touch upon the issue of creating a productive environment. “Big projects have a lot of people involved, a lot of technology involved, vendors involved, and the people get very, very nervous – they want someone to blame if the project is not working.”

“When I do the big projects, I have two types of problems. One is the technical problem: for solutions I work with engineers, architects, and those on the project. The second is the overall team problems, the overall team solving – that’s the most difficult because not everybody is the same. Not everybody is on the same page, and the priorities are different.”

“There is a lack of communication between the team, especially when I manage a mixture of people: technical teams, business, and non-technical people get involved, and there is conflict. The technical team has a special way of thinking, whereas the business people have their own way of thinking.”

When Rukhsana was first approached by a large telecom company, she had some big hurdles to tackle before the projects could meet their objectives. “The first time they asked me to consult was to build a team because the projects were many. A lot of people were doing a lot of work 24 hours a day, but they were always late. There were time and stress issues.”

Her solution to the blame-impulse and the stress?

“The first thing is to take a deep breath. Okay, we are late and that means there are issues. We cannot resolve the issues by jumping on the confusion. We have to be calm, first of all, so we can look at the problem.”

Redefining What is Critical

Rukhsana is known for her skills in seeing a problem and finding resolutions. As revealed during our conversation, she does this by setting up priorities and developing understanding.

I clean it up, I review all the projects. What are the projects, how are they being done, who is doing what, and are these required? Are all these critical? Because if everything is critical, then nothing gets done.

“The technical people tell you that everything is critical, but this is not the way business works. What is critical for the business? We have to take that, absorb what the business is looking for and make priorities.  Then, we divide that: what needs to get done in what time frame? Then we do it, and then the next one, etc.

“Clean it up and keep the process doing – don’t stop it.

“You start seeing results. People are happy, the business is happy. Things start coming on time, they are moving – they are not stuck, so that makes everybody more comfortable slowly, and we keep going. We deliver.”

How do you determine what is and isn’t critical? Rukhsana’s advice: “There should be a person in between taking the balanced approach.”

Engaging Creativity

Rukhsana uses a board when she works with her teams. It can be a whiteboard, a blackboard, any kind of board so long as it allows for writing. Once she has a board, she invites her team to take the problem out of themselves, and put it on the board.

“So I say, ‘okay, come to the board – because I am not dictating anything here. So this is our project, we both have an interest to get it done. And we have our shareholders to go back to. If you don’t agree, I say that’s fine. Everybody cannot agree on everything. Come to the blackboard and show me how you would do it.”

Why bother getting people to physically interact with the board? What does it trigger – how does it bring more creativity, curiosity and exchange? Turns out that with creativity, contribution, and problem solving, everything boils down to one essential element: engagement.

When we keep talking, we are not really listening to each other,” explains Rukhsana. “The brain is working in 15 different directions, and in meetings 80% of people don’t even get why they are there.”

Consider that engagement, and then hear how Rukhsana breaks it down into numbers:

“Even in corporations, the majority of the time the meetings are too many and there are 20, 30, even 40 people in every meeting. What are they doing, what is the productivity of the meeting? I tell VPs and directors all the time, ‘that is a waste of money.’ Because when 20 or 30 people come, even at 100 dollars an hour that the majority of them make. . . consider 30 x 100. You can see what you have wasted in just calling the meeting. The outcome is zero.”

So what does she propose instead? In terms of her project teams – she brings them to the board: “I take them to the room and say, ‘Go to the blackboard, and everybody draw what they want.’”

“The moment you get engaged, when you are drawing, when you are writing – then you know exactly what you are asking for, and then other people can say, ‘okay, yeah, now I can see.’”

“When people are productive they are engaged.”

Which is the crux of how Rukhsana overcomes different perspectives, politics, biases and all that other trouble that destroys productivity. By putting the problem and people’s understanding of the concept onto the boards, “I take the people out of the equation.”

Take the People Out of the Problem

Rukhsana tells a story of a very senior project manager whose work was technically excellent. One day, this senior project manager came to Rukhsana in tears.  When Rukhsana asked what was going on, the lady responded,

“People don’t respect me.”

But it wasn’t that she lacked respect, it was that there was a misunderstanding in communication. Firstly, Rukhsana helped this extremely capable project manager to

1. Calm herself down. (remember Rukhsana’s first step to approaching the big problem of most corporations – calm down, step back and relax.)

And then

2. Realize it wasn’t personal. Much like taking a project to the chalk board, Rukhsana suggests isolating “the problem of facts from the fiction or the personal relationships, personal liking or disliking.”

Can you see the reoccurring themes? People need to step back, get the problem out of their head (and preconceptions) and engage in the solution – and therefore, you create understanding despite differences and that initial panic reaction of blame. And from that team engagement, guided by a great project manager who demands quality but also has the ability to laugh and guide, productivity is inevitable.

Now, how glad are you that you read this article? If you enjoyed it, please share on your own social networks.

And at your next meeting, why not pull out a whiteboard and have your people get physical with their ideas? Take it out of the head (where it mixes with doubt, preconception, and bias) and put it on the board for some constructive review.

Sister Leadership would like to thank Dr. Rukhsana Malik for her openness in discussing her project management approach. Next week we’ll be sharing more of her personal story (which is incredible), and some of her personal life-guiding philosophies.

Till next time,

Camille

Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, bringing her knowledge of resilience, perseverance, and changing perception to others. Camille is currently accepting applications for the Women’s Executive Network  Senior Executives Wisdom Peer Mentoring program. Applications to this exciting and knowledge-sharing program are available here.

Read more from Camille as she aspires to  help women explode their success. For more posts and experiences, join Camille at her Sister Leadership page, connect on Twitter, and follow on Facebook.

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