Posts Tagged ‘program management’

The Soul of a Project #8: The Project Shaman

by Gary Monti on March 27, 2012

Is five o’clock, Friday, the best time for your project? Ever wonder why you became a project manager? Does it all feel like it’s crashing down around you? If so, you are in good company. George Lucas had similar feelings regarding R2-D2 and other production problems when shooting the first Star Wars (now episode four: A New Hope).

When it comes to dealing with difficult situations Lucas has some very good advice, “It helps to be nuts.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. I’d like to believe, thought, there is something deeper implied in that humor. It has to do with shamans and how they helped tribal chiefs find their way in guiding the tribe. Shamans were usually a little bit nutty, almost schizophrenic, and often would live beyond the edge of the village. There was a reason for this.

The chief guided tribes on a routine basis, making sure the rules were followed and adjudicating accordingly when there were disputes. But what about when the rules didn’t work? What about when a decision was needed as to whether or not the tribe should stay where it is or move to a strange, new land?

This is where the shaman came into play. The shaman was unencumbered by the body politic of the tribe and its rules. He was free to look within and without as far as his minds eye could see. There is a trivialized phrase that apes what the shaman would do, “think outside the box.” The shaman would go further and wonder, “Why bother with the box? What about a sphere? What about nothing at all?” You get the picture.

So the question is, “Would your project benefit by you taking a shaman’s approach?” Is there a different way you could see the situation that would bring about improvement? Here’s an example. I had a client whose customer was driving him nuts. E-mail after e-mail was sent every day questioning the progress of the project. My client was going crazy and falling into an ever-increasing reactive state.

A simple question flipped the situation into a new universe, “Do you know your customer?” he proceeded to spew a great deal of what was already known, e.g., how difficult he was, how his demands were unrealistic, etc., etc. The question was then modified a bit, “Do you know your customer personally?” That brought a blank stare.

It was the pursuit of doing something about that blank stare that turned things around.  A slow but concerted effort to find out more about the customer revealed he liked custom cars and fishing – the same hobbies as my client! You can probably guess the rest from here. My client got permission to fly to his customer’s for an extended weekend. They went to a custom car show as well as fly-fishing over a 4-day period. The flurry of e-mails stopped and they got down to business and were able to focus on completion of the project.

So, is there a shaman within you? Can you color outside the lines and view the world from a different perspective? Would doing so possibly show where a door exists through which you’ll find a solution to your project’s problems? Give it a shot. Go ahead and dream!

The Soul of a Project #7: Revenue and Trust

by Gary Monti on March 20, 2012

Increasing revenue can create quite a challenge. Doing more of the same is not necessarily the formula that works. Over the years I’ve come to see there are revenue plateaus companies hit. No matter how they try they can’t break through these sales barriers. So what is going on? One element that shows up 99 times out of 100 is trust. Or, should I say lack of trust.

The typical approach prior to engaging me is trying to “put a tire pump” on what’s worked in the past – more of the same. This lead to exhausted, frustrated employees and executives who feel let down. The approach seems so simple – just do more of what we’ve always done. What could be simpler? Plenty.

During root cause analysis what typically surfaces as the culprit is lack of trust. Senior managers want more of what benefits the company but they don’t want to let go of the reins of power. You might be asking, “What does that have to do with increasing sales?” The short answer is, “The people need to be empowered.”

Correspondingly, the employees try to work the same old work patterns. They shy away from the seeking the increase in responsibility that goes with the freedom to explore and grow the company. They might get slapped down. They want assurances.

In the end it boils down to one word – trust. How does that figure in to expanding an organization? What is happening is a change is needed for the growth to occur. Some of the old rules need to be retired and new ones need to be brought in. This creates a huge amount of stress. Managers fear for their jobs (of which there are fewer and fewer as one climbs the organization) as do the team members (who might have to leave the company if failure occurs).

This fear comes about mainly because people have to go to places within themselves of which they are afraid. In interviewing them the response I get goes something like this, “The skills I have honed are working fine – thank you very much! Go get the other guy to improve his work habits and turn more power over to me. Get out of my office. I have work to do. How much are we paying you to do this?”

If this attitude fails to change the revenues will stay the same or fall back to lower levels. This falling back throws gas on the fire and the tension gets even greater. The confusion also increases because efforts to grow have only made things worse!

What to do? The answer is quite simple but very hard to do: each person has to take charge of leadership in his own life and have the courage to negotiate new connections with those around him. There is a lot of inward activity. The key to success is going deep within and bringing to the forefront aspects of oneself that are a challenge to deal with. When the courage to do that is present and action is taken suddenly the ability to work with others associated with changing and growing seems possible. It is quite rewarding but I have to admit, it is scary and it is hard.

Wish there were more creativity, flexibility, and discipline on your project? Take a page from modern art and improvisational jazz (improv). Improvisational jazz may sound undisciplined. Criticisms can be similar to those leveled against modern art, ” My five year-old can paint like that!”

Taking a page from modern art, Picasso was in reality thinking very deeply trying to determine, among other things, how much he could subtract from the visual image and be left with the essence of what he was seeing (“Bull”).

Similarly, improv can be very deep. One thing it tries to accomplish is playing with the rules to see where things go. (The soloist in a band could switch from Inuit pentatonic scale to Egyptian heptatonic to see if the other players can keep up.) Well, if one is going to play with the rules they’d better have a good idea what they are! Discipline is important.

By manipulating the rules a whole new frame of mind can be created, one that takes people to new places.  Think of Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” with the melting watches.

So what would happen if we combined the two frames of mind? How could this be applied to projects? When stymied the team might breakout from being stuck and frustrated. What would happen if they stripped the project to its essence?

What does the customer need vs. want? How do the components relate? What are the rules? Can we play with them and create a project model that simultaneously covers the breadth of customer needs while integrating the components in a meaningful way?

Think of the creation of the iPad (upon which this blog is being created at 22,000 feet). Remember the early comments that there was no market for it? It is just another gadget with no serious application. It’s too small to be a computer and too large to be a phone.

Working this way is risky. But what if the team broke out to design and implement what would definitely meet the customer’s needs and maybe even more? Could they have a sense of pride, of accomplishment, of being leaders in their specialty? Think about it.

Being on the lookout for potential failure is one of a leader’s primary functions. So what does one look for when in the middle of a project? How do you maintain clear thinking so the right changes can be made? Here are some guidelines that can help.

Patterns of Maladaptation

Woods and Branlat recommend looking for three distinct patterns:

  1. Decompensation;
  2. Working at cross-purposes, and;
  3. Getting stuck in outdated behaviors.


This is when there is an over-reliance on teams being able to deal with problems. Drift, a topic covered in previous blogs, falls into this category. The most common example is over-reliance on overtime. When success occurs with chronic use of overtime, especially with salaried people getting no extra compensation, there may be blindness to the fact the team is marching towards burnout.

Working at cross-purposes. This behavior can be seen when local decisions are made without regard for the ripple effect on the rest of the project. A common example is concurrent engineering. With concurrent engineering serial activities are put at risk by putting them partially or completely in parallel. For example, Activity B should not begin until its predecessor, Activity A, is 100% complete. Because of time pressures, though, B begins prior to A’s completion.

The working assumption is prior to starting any work estimates and strategic plans are sufficiently adequate that the B team can be comfortable that the A team’s deliverable will work as expected. The problem is, especially with complex systems, there can be a myriad of small decisions made by both teams that the interface between the two teams’ work simply falls apart. An oversimplified example would be making a nut and bolt. Both do a perfect job but fail to realize one is using standard threads while the other is using metric. This occurred with one of the Mars orbiters. Calculations for breaking thrust to decelerate and bring the satellite into orbit were calculated in metric by one team. The thrust order was given in standard by another team – an order of magnitude too great. The whole time both teams were naively comfortable because they double-checked the precision of the number without asking each other what system of force application was used.

Getting stuck in outdated behaviors. A good example of this is Motorola’s loss of the cell phone market. They delayed entering the digital cell phone market because they dominated the analog cell phone market. At the time over 90% of the market was analog so Motorola saw no reason to waste effort on a fringe device. Enter Nokia and things changed rapidly and dramatically.

Patterns of Maladaptation

So what to do? Consider having routine assumption analysis meetings. “What-if” with the team and stakeholders. Bring the assumptions to the foreground. Pound on them! Connect them! Try to get as freewheeling a discussion going as possible to see what the limits are. Put probabilities on the possibilities and see if your project plan will hold up. Determine what change orders might be needed to position the project for success.

Sustaining this type of discussion among the team and stakeholders will maintain sensitivity to what is going on. This means something may be detected that is critical but failed to be part of the initial conversation. At this point the odds of success just might start stacking in your favor because your vision is getting sharper and your thinking is getting clearer.

Hunting submarines is similar to hunting situations likely to fail. In this second blog on organizational fatigue let’s do a deep dive and see what we can find.

There is an irony in that while the submarines are lurking below the surface the organizational factors increasing the probability of failure are right in front of the team. There are several reasons for this, which we will get to in a later blog. For now let’s stay with defining a system that searches for potential failures.

The first question that comes to mind is, “What do we look for?” Elizabeth Lay provides a good list in “Practices for Noticing and Dealing with the Critical. A Case Study from Maintenance of Power Plants.”

 “Error-likely” Climates

Lay provides 8 behaviors that are good indicators a failure is on the horizon:

  1. Leaders who use a top-down or intimidating style;
  2. Leaders who are closed off to listening to those close to the work and discouraged questions;
  3. Leaders who are not engaged in the work;
  4. Unclear roles and responsibilities for day-to-day work;
  5. Unhealthy win-lose competition between groups of workers;
  6. Over-involved customer who lacks an understanding of the work;
  7. Leaders unfamiliar with best practices and/or the cultural requirements for getting the job done;
  8. Leaders who don’t ask for help.

There is something familiar about this. Remember from the previous blog the child making a mess in the department store? What is the first question that comes to mind? “Where are the parents?”

From my work in change management one thing that stands out in this list is the absence of technical excellence. Does this mean we can just march in without technical know-how and still get things done? No. Quite the contrary. We do need technical excellent but it is only a starting point. We need a resilient organization. So how do we know resilience is missing?

Going back to the submarines, the above list is about what is invisible. The invisible component is the human factor – that “soft” stuff. It is about hubris, a subject covered in a previous blog.

Hubris is a big part of what keeps me in business. It shows up as intellectual prowess and the belief that he who knows the most will provide the best product. Frankly, that is just the starting point and provides only half the solution.

Complex projects require a communication network that runs in two directions. The one we are most familiar with is top-down. This sets the stage for contracts, statements of work, etc., and gives the team a sense of direction. This rarely is perfect and complete, which gets to the second direction – bottom-up. In complex projects this is known as emergence. The project actually evolves (which can create real problems in a fixed-fee situation – but that’s another blog) and requires good information from team members closest to the project climate and work at hand.

In order to avoid organizational fatigue a back-and-forth between senior managers, the customer, and team players is needed. In a way, we become our brother’s keeper not so much in terms of taking on his responsibilities but in terms of being sensitive to the ripple effects of what we are doing as well as what is going on in the environment.

Pinging the organization for the 8 behaviors mentioned and taking corrective action will go a long way towards helping steer resources and expectations in the right direction.

In the next blog we’ll continue our journey into the causes and ways to avoid organizational fatigue.

5 Steps to Sound Growth for Small Businesses

by Matthew Carmen on July 4, 2011

Over the last several months, I have mostly written about the financial, strategic and operational needs of mid-sized and large companies.  What about small business?  Companies with, say, 10-150 employees…what in these areas can best serve them?  Of course there are the obvious: the ability to track expenditures, report on company spend, rudimentary budgeting, payroll, etc. Certainly these are very important, but really, the owners and stakeholders of the small business should be able to handle this on their own – or with minimal help.   The most important need for small business owners is to work with someone well-versed in things financial, who can offer a growing business the ability to formulate strategy and then develop sound finance processes, procedures and who can offer the right tools to turn strategy into practice.  In this way, the finance person participates in the growth of the business and helps take the company to the next level.

This resource discussed above is the hardest to articulate to small business clients.  They usually want someone to tell them how much they are spending, on what, and how they can spend less on the same services.  These are important questions, but somewhat short-sighted.  What the client should be asking, (and I like to ask questions to get them thinking this way) is:  How can I get my company to the next level?  The proverbial next level of course means something different for each company: it may be $10 million in sales for one, higher margins for another, or opening up new markets for another still. Regardless, I’ve found that there are 5 key steps that must take place in order to reach ‘next level’ status:

  1. Decide what the next level is, specifically.  What is the direction in which your company wants to go?  There will be some type of desired growth, what is it?  Does this growth match the company’s mission and values?  Formulating your goal is most important; if the goal is unclear, there is no way that a strategy can help achieve that goal.  Sure, some goals are reached anyhow simply by dumb luck, but as you probably guessed, it is not a scalable process.
  2. Develop a strategy to reach a clear goal.  This takes true leadership from within.  Once a goal is formulated, a well-thought-out strategy or detailed plan is needed to get there.  What will it cost to reach our goal? What skills are required (marketing, product development, operations, etc)?  How much time with this endeavor take?  Once these large questions are answered, a program or project management team should be able to take over and develop a detailed plan of action.
  3. Plan of action. The program team in a small company (usually 1 or 2 people) will need to develop the timeline for the actions that need to take place, and who will actually perform the work.  This program team may be made up of internal employees or outside contractors/consultants.  There are many tools which help in this area as well, including Microsoft Project and others, that can help organize tasks and timing.  Once a plan is developed and approved, the real work starts.
  4. Communication:  The plan and assignment of roles must be clearly communicated to the entire organization.  This serves multiple purposes: it lets those that will be involved understand their roles and what their expectations are, and it also lets those not involved know what the future state of the organization will look like. Finally, it lets management know how they should start planning for future roles in a fashion that will evolve along with company goals.  Expectations of everyone will change during this process, typically for the better.
  5. Reporting and Tracking:  This step entails reporting on the progress of the strategic implementation.  The best tools for this are a balanced scorecard and separate financial reports.  A balanced scorecard will track the inner workings of the strategic implementation – what is going on at the operational, leadership and learning levels, how the organization is changing and ensuring it is on track to meet goals on time.  The financial reporting piece will let leadership know if they are spending what was approved and in the right areas.  Analysis of both these reporting mechanisms will allow for operational changes as the external environment changes (competition, products, legal, etc.)

The process is finished once the project goals are met.  (Have the new systems been put into production, etc.?) Now the claims made by the new strategy need to be monitored closely, and the results examined likewise.  Is there progress being made towards our goal?  If yes, is this progress happening as planned? Faster? Slower? Perhaps the new systems now in place allow for amending goals upward, or results in better returns on investment. If so, what a great problem to have, right?  Continued reporting and vision are also required – and once new goals are established, the process should ideally begin anew.

So you see, the finance person at a small company must wear many more hats than his/her counterpart in larger organizations.  In the scenarios above, there is a good chance that the finance person will also serve as the program manager for the strategic implementation, or at least play a key roll in that implementation.  The risks are often greater for a small company, but the rewards for the company can be greater as well – and isn’t that what owning a business is all about?

3 Keys to Successful Integration Projects

by Matthew Carmen on April 11, 2011

Integration Projects

When a company goes through a merger, acquisition, purchase of a business unit, a strategic partnership, etc, there are activities that need to take place to make multiple entities into one cohesive unit.  These activities include: reaching the stated financial goals of the combined new business through operational and departmental combination, the selection of ongoing IT systems, and cost cutting initiatives.  All of these tasks, that create the new company, are integration projects within the larger program.

According to research done by the consulting company NGTO, over 50% of mergers are considered failures and 60-70% of these failures are due to significant misses regarding financial goals tied to the merger.  For public companies – and these are the mergers that people hear and read about – the financial goals are the key.  The true goal of a company is to grow shareholder value, be those shareholders stockholders in a public company or partners in a private entity.  If shareholder value is not improved by acquisition or merger, then what truly was the point?

Further research done by my own firm Datacenter Trust shows that when failure occurs, it is most often due to the stoppage of the integration process after reaching a portion of the total goal; say the merger of business units or reaching the financial goal set by the companies upon announcement of a deal.  By stopping the integration process, the new entity never reaches the strategic state that it set out to accomplish through merger.  Without reaching this state, optimal shareholder value is either not attained (as happens in most cases) or takes much longer and is more costly than was originally estimated.

Mitigating Integration Failure

As a financial professional with nearly two decades of integration experience, I would love to tell you that all the keys to success are based on dollars saved vs. dollars spent, but this sadly would be a lie. If I said all integration projects are successful, this too would be untrue. What I can tell you is that communication is the largest factor in a successful integration project.  Communication is followed closely by understanding – meaning that the people who will be doing the work must understand what the future state of the new organization is meant to look like.  Finally, there is program management – empowering the community that will perform the integration projects while having clear leadership and participation from the executive suite to ensure the program is aligned with the overall strategic vision. Now, lets look at these 3 a bit more closely:


I cannot stress enough that communication is the largest factor in the mitigation of integration failure.  The executive leadership of the company must ensure that the execution team understands the goal and the look and feel of the future state organization.  Leadership also must make it clear that they are willing and active participants in the program being developed.  Leadership must serve as the sounding board and approvers of each project so as to ensure the entire integration program stays aligned with the evolving strategic vision.  Without communication, there is zero chance of successfully integrating the new organization as advertised to stockholders, employees and the public at large.


Understanding is an offshoot of communication.  I would argue that if the execution team as a whole does not completely understand the job at hand, then the notion of communication was unsuccessful.  Also, there cannot be any weak links in the execution team; everyone from the project managers to the network and database administrators must fully understand how their role will ultimately lead to success.  Without understanding, members of the execution team will invoke their own decision rules (e.g. loudest demands, squeakiest wheel, bosses whim, least risk to job, easiest activity, etc.)  Allowing this type of behavior is asking for trouble.  Integration initiatives have a finite amount of time to be completed and must be with the utmost skill and timeliness.

Program Management

Finally we come to program management; the company needs to get the best program and project managers available for integration.  This might even mean going outside the company to contract with consultants specializing in these types of integration projects.  As stated above, the project needs to be completed on time, on budget, and most importantly it must succeed in meeting the goals.  Setting up a ‘program office’ to manage integration properly is an imperative.  The program office manages expectations both up the corporate ladder to the executive suite and down to all areas of the execution team.  Management of the individual project managers is an important area of the program office as well.  With a limited amount of resources, each member of the execution team needs to manage his/her time down to the minute (remember, these team members have regular jobs as well) as the ongoing operations of the company need to take place on a continuing basis.

Countless other activities will help an integration initiative to succeed, but those I’ve covered here are the main three.  In the end, there are many intangibles that come up on a minute-by-minute basis during the project engagement.  The real key is to keep in mind that great people always lead to better results:  Empower the execution team while managing the alignment of integration and the new corporate strategy, ask for external help if needed, ensure leadership is fully engaged, and you’ll be on the path to success.

Project fogs are maddening. They are:

  • Pervasive;
  • Sensed by all;
  • Capable of frustrating excellent plans;
  • Have broad impact on project performance;
  • Complex and, like all things complex, require reams and reams of reports to define thoroughly making it virtually impossible to understand on paper. Nothing specific jumps out;
  • Unable to be resolved with a quick fix;

What does a project manager do? The answer is simple and can be stated in a paradox, “Embrace the project fog.” To do this the fog must first be understood.

When a project starts “things happen” and the fog begins to roll in. It shows up at boundaries taking the form of technical problems along with the environment and key stakeholders being confused, undirected, uncooperative, unsupportive or even antagonistic. The project manager is faced with the challenge of getting the project moving again while staying within the triple constraint of scope, time, and budget.

Brittle Plans

Usually, no plan is perfect. The reason is the plan is an abstract and a distillate of the planning process. It contains what the team thinks will work based on certain assumptions and is drawn from a larger universe of possible solutions.

Within project constraints the wisdom of the team is forged into the knowledge-based plan.

There can be alternatives built in but no plan is omniscient. So, things happen and the plan can become brittle and break. This is why toy makers have children play with the final product. A two year old can quickly find limits and defects in a product developed by a room full of engineers.

The Solution: Embrace the Fog

To disperse project fogs the project manager and team must embrace it. Embracing the project fog means dealing with it on its own terms. It means finding something that is equally pervasive, can be felt by all, and has a broad, positive impact across the difficult boundary. The solution has some other characteristics. It is:

  • Readily implementable;
  • Truly simple, i.e., dispels most or all of the fog by resolving all the conflicts and uncertainties;
  • Ultimately easily documented, and;
  • Seen by all as being a realistic solution;

The solution is the fog’s equal in terms of appearance and a countermanding positive performance. It is the team’s wisdom focused into a new or modified deliverable and/or process commonly called the workaround.

Yes, the word that gets beaten and abused – viewed as something just about anyone can do so, hop to it and git ‘er done. The fact is a truly good workaround that satisfies everyone from conceptual engineer to maintenance technician could be quite sophisticated and frequently a work of art.

The workaround’s simplicity can be viewed by the uninitiated as simple-minded.

I doubt anything could be further from the truth. Why? There is no linear, detailed, step-by-step path to the solution. The successful workaround reflects a power arising from and distributed across the diverse team, not resident in any one person or thing. Changing the team members or distracting them with too much work can disrupt the dynamic and turn off the ability to embrace the project fog.

So, when confronted with project fog embrace it! Pull your nose out of the details, put the team in charge, turn them loose, buy the coffee, soda, and pizza. Let them create the simple, documentable, durable solution. Watch them work their magic!

Project managers (PMs) have to deliver; yet power to get the job done can be elusive. Is there a way PMs can take care of themselves and the team knowing they are lower on the food chain? Can they get some power? Yes. How so? Let’s explore.

Portfolios, Programs, and Projects

First some background. A simple, common hierarchy with a current situation in the transportation industry is:

Location Position Example
External Client EPA
Internal Portfolio Mgr internal combustion engine
Internal Program Mgrs gasoline diesel
Internal Project Mgrs 1000cc 3000cc 4000cc 5000cc

The “client” in this case is the external regulatory agency. The deliverable is a reduction in emissions for the various types of engines a manufacturer produces with standards varying based on the displacement and fuel consumed. We’ll look at the client after examining the internal organization.

Internally, working from the top-down, there is a progression from strategic (market position, profits, etc.) to the tactical/tangible (every engine coming off the assembly line has to meet stringent requirements within the next few years). Teams in the internal combustion industry are feeling the heat with pressure coming down from above. Deadlines and goals have been set.

To maintain a healthy balance in this situation PMs will do best understanding and communicating in the language used by those with more strategic positions and power. This language also needs to provide a portal through which the PMs can express project concerns. The language is risk management.

Now, shift focus to the client. It is through the client the PM can gain influence – better known as power. The connection between the PM and the client is quality. As the old saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Again, each engine needs to perform per regulatory limitations.

So, in a way, the PM has a direct connection with the client through quality. It is important to avoid being Pollyannaish and think the PM has the power baton of the client. The situation is subtler. This is where risk management comes into play.

By understanding how the performance of the deliverable is impacted by quality the PM can gain leverage communicating through the business case. How? The PM uses a specific aspect of risk management – Expected Monetary Value (EMV). EMV can take quality, time, and money and combine them into one model – a model understandable to both the business unit and project team. A good EMV model tells how good or bad things can get in the current risk environment and points to areas where changes (time, money, resources) are needed.

This seems a bit roundabout if quality is the focus. So, why do this? Simple. There can be an intrinsic desire for quality in an organization. That desire, though, can vary in commitment from organization to organization as well as within an organization.

On the other hand, the focus on time and money is pretty much universal and that is the context in which quality sits – always the bridesmaid, never the bride. EMV flips the situation and addresses time and money squarely in the context of quality looking to see how stable and acceptable the deliverable will be in various risk environments.

Consequently, EMV models can help bridge client power to the team’s need to perform and cross over the obstacles of time, money, and resource constraints by showing how squeezing the team too tightly or working in the current risk environment could hammer profits and viability in the long run.

With the stage set, in the next blog some of the specifics of the EMV model and how it works will be addressed.

In our last article we talked about the importance of having an unremarkable handshake, one that people do not remember.  It shouldn’t be too long nor too short, neither too firm nor too soft.  Now we’ll see how the handshake fits into a smooth, professional business greeting.  First let’s build a proper business handshake.

A good handshake has eight key parts (don’t worry – – – they are easy to learn and to remember once you practice them a few times):

  1. Distance from other person (cultural) – – – stand 2 to 2½ feet apart in North America and Western Europe.
      • Any closer may be awkward and that can affect the handshake.
      • Any farther apart causes stepping into the greeting (appropriate when meeting a group of people but not one-on-one).
      • If seated (and able), stand up to greet the other person and shake hands
  2. Make eye contact just before the hands meet, then very briefly glance at the hands, to avoid a miss!  Smile FIRST, then glance at the hands, and then join hands.  And keep the smile throughout all the handshakes and into the subsequent discussions.  Avoid the linked “pump-smile”.  You know, where the fake smile starts when the hands first touch, lasts during the hand-pumping, then instantly evaporates when the hands separate.  That sends a message of insincerity and pretension.
  3. Relax your upper and lower arm and wrist so that when the hands meet, the other person feels no tension – – – the arm should move back and forth easily, to let the hands gently bump together in the initial grip and then find a comfortable mid-point in the space between the two people.  The subliminal message here is “I am relaxed around you and you have no reason to be tense around me.  I am friendly.”
  4. Join hands web-to-web, getting the hands firmly against each other without slamming them together.  If the other person is too fast on the draw and grips your fingers instead of your hand, stop, break the handshake, saying something like “you were too fast for me”, and then reengage the hands.  Under no circumstances allow another person to get a limp-fish or fingers-only handshake from you.  You cannot risk them concluding that it is indicative of your personality.  As awkward as it may be (and it usually isn’t, really) break the handshake and do it again.
  5. Drop your thumb around the other hand and wrap your fingers up snugly around the other hand.  If you have a very small hand in comparison to the other person’s, do the best you can.  Avoid at all costs a tense, straight-fingered handshake which uncomfortable to experience and sends a message of a person who is anxious or uptight about something.
  6. Gently squeeze the other hand, slightly lighter when meeting a woman but NOT when you ARE a woman.  More on that in a moment.
  7. Engage in two to four small pumps from your elbow, using only your forearm, while saying an appropriate greeting
      • Nice to meet you
      • Thanks for taking the time to meet
      • Good morning/afternoon/evening (when you can think of nothing better)
      • John speaks very highly of you (only if it is true – – – somebody may ask John what he said)
  8. Release the grip and (in Western business culture) step or lean back since the comfortable handshake distance is closer than the comfortable conversational distance

After the handshake is broken if an awkward silence begins, say “I have a card here somewhere . .” and dig one out.  It is a good ice breaker.  (In a future post we may discuss the card exchange ritual and how it differs in the US, Europe and Asia.)

We recently watched the Presidents of Russia and the USA on television as they shook hands at the end of a strategic arms treaty signing.  The US president’s arm seemed relaxed and his elbow was bent at a comfortable angle.  But the Russian President’s arm was straight out!  This was not caused by the difference in the height of the men.  The Russian had stepped back to begin the handshake, putting him too far away from the US President and he then closed the distance not by stepping closer but by extending his arm.  That made it impossible to offer a relaxed hand and wrist, an essential part of a comfortable handshake (see tip # 3 above).  I wonder what the US President thought when the Russian offered him his tensed hand and wrist, perched at the end of a taut, stiff, locked arm!  I might have concluded that I had scared the Russian stiff!  And maybe he had.

There are exceptions to the above rules and injury is one: An injured right hand is certainly a reason not to shake right hands.  So extend your other hand!  I have shaken left hands many times with folks who had sports/other injuries (even a nail gun wound on one occasion).

An irrational fear of germs is another reason not to shake hands.  Some extremely introverted and/or germ-phobic people really dread handshakes and avoid them at all costs (visions of Howard Hughes and Howie Mandel?).  But anyone who avoids shaking my hand needs to be sniffling and complaining of flu-like symptoms, so I know they are worried about infecting other people with whatever malady they have.  And if that same person, over time, always seems to avoid shaking hands with anyone, always blaming a new infection or injury, that may indicate severe introversion, a psychological aversion to touching other people or some other psychiatric/pathological issue.  Nice to know if you are considering doing business with them!  But if the person just avoids shaking hands with you, then the two of you may have some issues to iron out privately!  Either way, the handshake is the key indicator of much deeper issues.

Women’s handshakes deserve special mention.  The days of ladies being expected to offer limp handshakes are over.  Men and women expect firm handshakes from women, period.  And ladies, do not squeeze too hard since this can be perceived as overcompensating for the stereotyped woman-in-a-man’s-world.  Just cultivate a firm handshake using the guidance here.  And gentlemen, mirror the grip of the lady, offering the same level of strength and grip.  And remember that ladies’ hands are often smaller than yours and her fingers may not make it all the way around your ham-sized hand!

The two-handed handshake:  we sometimes see people adding their other hand to the handshake, putting it either atop or underneath their primary hand.  This seems to be more common in the southern US than in the north.  In an earlier time it was used to show very sincere appreciation but it is now mainly used at funerals to show deep sympathy.  We suggest it not be used in normal business circles: it invariably takes the other person by surprise and they are then unsure whether to add their own second hand to the mix and if so, where.

Cheek-Kissing, where people alternate 2-4 left and right bumpings cheek-to-cheek, is making a comeback in some circles and here we suggest you just go with the flow.  Continental Europeans seem to do this to Americans just because they know it completely confuses us and we blush and mess up the direction our head should go and look silly.  But give it try.  Turn heads to the left for the first “kiss” and then alternate.  The worst that can happen is an exchange of facial make-up.  But if you absolutely do NOT want to try it, as you approach the other person, just extend your hand for a handshake.  That sends a clear message.  (Be advised that Belgians and people in show business may also simultaneously lip-smooch the air each time the cheeks touch.   I never even try this – – – coordinating the cheeks and the heads is hard enough for me.)

Hugging upon greeting or parting is acceptable among friends and long-time business acquaintances.   It is usually done instead of a handshake so decide early-on if that is what you will do with someone and then when the time comes, open both arms so the hands are at least shoulder-width apart and at waist level to signal your intention to hug.  Then step smoothly into a brief embrace.  And here is a subtle but important point: Usually hugs occur last, after you have shaken the hands of all the other people you with whom you are not as friendly.  This is so you don’t inadvertently insult subsequent people who might now also be expecting a hug but instead get a handshake.

Order:  Shake people’s hands in order of the most senior person first, followed by anyone who helped arrange the meeting, then everyone else’s.  Save close associates and friends until last so you can hug them if desired.

Practice your personal handshake style with colleagues and friends.  And then an hour later ask them what they remember about your handshake.  If they reply “nothing” then that is perfect.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation