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Getting Project Management Right


HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

So many of us manage projects – even if the words “project manager” aren’t in our official job title. Whether you’re developing a new product, a one-off event, or a corporate communication, you have to manage collaborators and stakeholders, adapt as circumstances continuously change, and, of course, make your deadlines.

Today we bring you a conversation about how to get project management right with the help of Tamara McLemore, an Agile-certified project manager; and a guest we’ll call Sarah, former clinical social worker who recently pivoted to a project management role and is already encountering some common challenges.

In this episode, you’ll learn some key skills for effective project management including how to influence others, communicate effectively, and solve problems. You’ll also learn how to break any project down into four core phases AND use essential project managements tools, like a project charter and a work breakdown structure.

 This episode originally aired on Women at Work in January 2023, as part of a special series called The Essentials. Here it is.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Up until recently, Sarah was a clinical social worker. She’d gotten her Master’s degree in the subject and then did it for over a decade.

SARAH: After a while, really during the pandemic, I realized I wanted to make a career pivot. So, I thought about what positions would I be qualified for, what would I enjoy? I consider myself a pretty organized individual and I like completing tasks and working with others to achieve a goal. And I decided that project management would be something that I had the skills for and would enjoy.

AMY BERNSTEIN: She took a job at a university where the assignment was to lead a team in setting and achieving specific goals.

SARAH: And the team that I work with hired me, so they knew my background, they knew that I didn’t have lots and lots of experience as a project manager, but they hired me anyway.

AMY BERNSTEIN: A year in, Sarah still feels out of her depth.

SARAH: I feel like I just don’t know what I’m doing very often because of that lack of training.

AMY BERNSTEIN: The project management waters are surprisingly deep, so it’s small wonder that even this highly educated, highly skilled woman is feeling under prepared and insecure. You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein. So many of us manage projects, even if project manager isn’t part of our job title. That’s because so much of the work we do has become project based. People are putting in more and more time on teams tasked with developing a new product or service that has impact. Success, the experts say, typically comes from strategically navigating four phases. The first is planning when you determine the real problem to solve, identify stakeholders and define the project’s objectives. Next comes buildup when you assemble your team, plan assignments and create a schedule. Third is implementation when you monitor the process, report progress and manage problems. And, finally, close out, when you evaluate the project’s performance and debrief with the team. In learning about the project economy, one stat has stayed with me. Around two thirds of the world’s projects fail. And while Sarah’s project is by no means failing, she still wants to pick up some tips from someone in the know, which is where Tamara McLemore comes in. For about 20 years at different companies, she’s been setting priorities, motivating teams, and delivering results.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: I’ve been in every industry you can think of. Healthcare, airlines, telecom, even in a law firm.

AMY BERNSTEIN: She also teaches project management and she’s here to speak with me and Sarah about some of the most common challenges you may face when you manage your own projects and how to handle them. Sarah, I’d love to start with you. What has been the hardest part of the job?

SARAH: The hardest part of the job for me has been getting used to this whole new career. I’ll give you a specific example. Recently, during a lull in the work that I’m doing with my current project, I was asked to help out with another project that needed a project manager. And so, I was working with a new group of people that didn’t know me, and the supervisor asked me to create a project charter for this project that I was going to help with. And I remember thinking, like, Oh, my gosh, this guy has no idea that I don’t know what I’m doing, and he’s asking me to fill out this form, the project charter, that I have never done before. Thankfully, he had an example of a project charter for this actually specific project, and so I ended up using quite a bit of that example charter. But if I hadn’t had that example, I would’ve just floundered. I don’t know what bullets you put where and how do you number things and how do you write a charter? I had no idea. Long story short, I find myself not knowing kind of the basics that I feel like perhaps other project managers might know.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, let’s get into that and let’s start with the project charter. We’ve published a lot about this and in the HBR Guide to Project Management, we say that every project charter should spell out the nature and scope of the work and management’s expectations for results. And that seems perfectly reasonable. And then you get into the fine print. The authors of the article I’m mentioning recommend including the name of the project sponsor, the project’s benefits to the organization, the project’s objectives, expected timeframe, budget and resources available, project manager’s authority, signed off on by the sponsor. A lot of stuff. So, Tamara, is it worth it? Is this really important? Is this reasonable?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Absolutely. So, a project charter includes everything that you just included, but one thing to remember about a charter, it is short and dirty and to the point. It is not a dissertation. When I ask most people, when they come to me like, Oh, my God, I’ve got to write this charter. In their mind, they’re thinking it’s a dissertation, that it needs to be 20 pages, when in fact it’s a one pager, maybe two pages. Maybe. But it is just the benefits. It is the high level. It is bullet points. It is straight to the point.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Can it be changed? Is it carved in stone?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: It is carved in stone because it is objective. “In one year, we intend to execute X, Y, Z, and this is the dollar amount.” But how you intend to execute and everything in between is for interpretation.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s very, very helpful because I find all of this sort of set up a little bit daunting. And you need so much clarity, even though there are many unknowns. I’m wondering, Sarah, if you’ve ever had any problems getting the kind of clarity that Tamara is talking about from whoever is assigning the projects. The nature and the scope and the expected results. Has that ever been a problem?

SARAH: Absolutely. The one primary project that I’m working on right now is a university-wide initiative, and we are really building the plane as we’re flying it. I feel that way every single day. If we have a project charter for this project, it was created before I joined the team, but I’m thinking we don’t even have one. It’s a very unstructured initiative that we’re working on right now as we are designing it and carrying it out in real time. So, that is a huge challenge.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Tamara, let me ask you a question from our producer, Amanda Kersey. She’s, like a lot of us, an unofficial, kind of informal project manager, and she told me that she often underestimates the time it’ll take to produce a season, a season of our podcast, Women at Work, and then she has to hustle to meet the deadlines. And in doing the research for this episode, she came across what’s called a work breakdown structure. You’re nodding your head because you know what we’re talking about here. And that’s a tool that project managers use to get a realistic estimate of how long a complex activity will take. And it makes you break down the major tasks into sub-tasks and then estimate each sub-task’s length of time and cost. She’s thinking about using this tool, but first she wants to know, is this your recommended go-to? Should she be doing this to plan our season?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Yes, I would say, absolutely, because you have been doing this for a while now. And so, you know everything that it takes to build a successful podcast. You have the engineers, you have your guests, you have all the tasks, and now you can put some timelines around that. You can put some costs, you can put risk. So, you have all the lessons learned, is what we call it. So, you never want to start from scratch. That’s one thing in project management. We never want to start from scratch. And so, since you have that historical information, you are able to create that work breakdown structure.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Sarah, do you use this work breakdown structure?

SARAH: Maybe informally. It sounds a little familiar. My way of managing my work is sort of Google Docs, making myself lists, using a project management tool called Asana, which I’m relatively new to. I’ve used other online tools. I just sort of cobbled together something that works for me, but I’m always open to learning new ways of managing my time and my tasks.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Okay. And before we get on to getting a project going, anything you want to ask Tamara about the planning phase, Sarah?

SARAH: Yeah. So, Tamara, I’m thinking about the example of my project that I refer to as building the plane as we’re flying it. How could we plan better in those kinds of situations? What my team has been doing is having a retreat every few months to talk about what we’ve done, what work is in the next phase, how we want to achieve our goals, what our goals are, et cetera. And that’s sort of kind of been working for us, but do you have any suggestions about planning the projects that are not clearly set in stone, that are evolving as they are being carried out?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: So, the first thing I want to commend you on is that you guys are doing an offsite retreat because that’s exactly what you should be doing because you cannot plan by having a 30-minute, hourlong meeting. That does not work in project management. And so, when we do these major initiatives, we do go offsite for maybe a day or two with our whiteboard. So, I commend you on that. So, back to your question on how could you do that for projects that you’re not that clear on. You do this more often. And, no, you can’t have a retreat every month, but in Agile we actually do it every two weeks. We have a planning session on what are our next requirements that we want to implement. What is up next? At bat is what we call it. And we get everybody involved. So, that’s my question to you, Sarah. When you are having these sessions, do you include everybody? Not just the tech team, not just the business, but the end user, training, making certain that in your planning sessions you include everybody. You have to invite from the top down and sideways because everybody has input and it is so pertinent to your project and your requirements that you have everybody’s voice in those sessions.

SARAH: That’s a great point. We’re sort of growing, our team is changing, our work is changing a bit. So, I think future retreats will include more people, which I think is always good.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Very good.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, I want to touch on what you’re just talking about because it sounds like what you’re doing, Sarah, is aligning your team. And a lot of projects are cross-functional, cross-enterprise. You’re pulling in people with different skills, with different work experience, from different parts of the company, used to different cultures within the company. Tamara, how beyond these sort of setup meetings do you align everyone on goals and priorities and schedules and so forth?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Exactly what you said, Amy. Bringing everybody to the table with a different outlook really helps enhance what are we trying to achieve in this project. So, for instance, if you have sales, they’re focused on one thing. Marketing is focused on something else. But guess what? The end goal is to increase revenue. We still all have the end goal. We just have a different lens on how we get there. So, you have to have some type of camaraderie of the group before we get started. Everybody likes to just get down to the requirements, but we have to talk about what do we all have in common? We have to talk about our kids are going to school, to college, our fur babies. Once you have broken down those barriers, that we’re all here, we’re all the same no matter how long we’ve been in the organization, everybody just becomes one. No matter what part of the organization you’re in, we’re all here for a goal. And last but not least, do not underestimate good food at a retreat and at a working session, along with a lot of chocolate and a lot of snacks.

AMY BERNSTEIN: You’re reminding me of a colleague of mine who begins all of her very big meetings with a photo, a mystery photo, that someone in the meeting has sent her. Someplace they visited. And we take five minutes at the beginning just to guess where that photo is taken. And it’s really fun. I love trying to guess and I love watching the guesses come in in the chat. So, I think that she’s reading from the same guidebook. But what I’m also hearing is you cannot overstate the importance of the softer side of these meetings, right?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m telling you, it always makes for a successful project. It just really does. Because now I’m not the person that’s going in giving that person more work. We’re actually having a good time achieving the successful goals of that organization.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, managing a project requires you to make a million decisions and then to communicate constantly about those decisions. It’s exhausting. Tamara, how do you manage your energy?

 

TAMARA MCLEMORE: That’s a funny one. So, I make sure I have my liquids, my green juice, and my chocolate. And when I get up in the morning, and I’ll take a step back. Even before I go to bed the night before, I make sure that I have my priorities for the next day and what I’m going to start my day with. That way I can get a good night’s rest. There is nothing worse than waking up exhausted and tired because you’ve been thinking all day and all night, tossing and turning.

SARAH: I agree. I think that’s really important. And I really appreciated it when I went away for the holiday break. Before I left, I made myself a Post-it of what I would do today, my first day back from work after a break, in the order that I was going to do tasks. And I’ve just been crossing things off my Post-it this morning.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Very good. And as far as communicating, okay, I have a question for you ladies. What percentage of project management do you think communication is?

AMY BERNSTEIN: Sarah? Cold call?

SARAH: I don’t know. 80 to 90%. High.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Ding, ding, ding. 90%. It is extremely high. And so, that’s a great question, Amy, on how do I communicate? I communicate based on how that person likes to be communicated. What does that mean? So, when I get a new project, I ask the director, “How do you like to be communicated?” You know most people tell me. “Tamara, do not send me this long email. I need bullets. And I mean three bullets.” I’ve had a director tell me they want it color coordinated. Red if the project is off kilter, yellow if you need more money or time, green if your project is on schedule, on budget. And so, for everybody that I work with, the stakeholders, I ask them. Some people, it’s an email. Some people love IMs. I’m like, “Oh, my God. Can we get on email?” They refuse to. And if that’s how they want to be communicated, I give the people what they want. But more importantly, in the emails, in my communication, I’m very clear and concise on what I need and why I need it. And I’ll give you an example. “I need this report by the close of business tomorrow.” And I put the time zone because we’re dealing with people all over not the country, the world. So, you want to be very clear and then go a step further and let them know exactly why you need it. “I need this report because this report goes into a director’s report and it has to be synthesized and blah, blah, blah.” And so, when you’re that clear and you’ve built that rapport, they get it to you ASAP with no back and forth and no problems. So, the clearer you can be and the more concise and the least amount of words you can use in an email, the better.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, let me ask you another nuts and bolts question, Tamara. You’ve pulled together a team, they’re probably cross-functional, they may be cross enterprise. Some of them may not be used to working with the structures and the tools of project management. They may not know what a Gantt chart is or Amanda’s favorite tool, the work breakdown structure. So, you can’t really force all this stuff down their throats. How do you get people to use these tools in a way that allows them to embrace them rather than be annoyed by them?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Ooh, that’s a good question. And so, what I do is I have these one-on-ones with people and say, for instance, “Sarah, what tool in project management do you feel would be very beneficial, you’re not that good at, but you want to learn more about?” And you’re like, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” Giving you some time to think about that and then sending you to a class, giving you time to broaden your horizons, to upskill yourself. No pressure because it’s something that you have identified that you want to get better at. And so, that’s how I take on each individual person on my team, the way that they can upskill themselves, but at the same time, make the project more successful.

SARAH: I can relate to that, Tamara. When I started this project management job, my supervisor introduced me to one online tool. She showed me all the bells and whistles. She showed me what she liked about it, how she uses it at work, how she uses it in her personal life. And that got me really excited about it. Never once did she say, “You have to use this and here’s when you have to use it and why and how.” Just like, “Here’s an option, here’s why I like it.” And I think that’s a really good approach to use with people.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Sarah, you’ve gotten your project kind of up and moving. Where do you find yourself struggling or needing a little guidance?

SARAH: I find that I struggle around politics and dealing with individuals who might not work in the manner that I work, on the timeframe that I work. For example, I’m working with someone more and more these days where when I make suggestions, she’s just not open to my suggestions, my ideas, my wishes and wants, and I just feel steamrolled by her. We’re just going to do whatever she wants to do.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Tamara, I’m looking at you. How do we help Sarah?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: This has happened to me. Every project, every organization I go to, this happens. And what I find is it is not even about me. Sometimes it’s about that position. They may have wanted my position, and I was appointed to this position and they feel like it’s not fair. And what qualifications did I have that they didn’t have? So, once I’m able to assess what is really going on here, then the working relationship, we become best friends, best working buds. But we have to break those barriers. And so, sometimes a good old fashioned coffee chat will do the job. Another thing, I have a lot of people as a project manager and the manager, people come to me and complain about people all the time. And when I tell them, “Did you go have a one-on-one with them? Did you take them offline? Did you take them for lunch? Did you take them for coffee before you brought this to me?” And they always look at me deer with the headlights, “No.” “Go talk to that person first.” And then it’s always solved. Nine times out of 10, it is resolved.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s great advice.

SARAH: So, Tamara, I have a question for you: how to reach people when an individual is not responding to email, Slack, maybe even phone. I can’t remember the last time I called someone at work on the phone, but maybe we’ve even tried to call them.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: So, the first thing I do is when somebody’s not responsive via email or Slack or our regular communication channels, I do pick up the phone. I don’t send more than two emails because it’s going to get lost. And now you’re putting more on their plate for them to clean their inbox. I am literally picking up the phone. I’m not giving them a heads up on IM, “I’m calling you.” Pick up the phone, old school communication and say, “Tamara, what is going on? Did the dog eat my email?” I’m making a joke about it, but I’m really asking, “What is going on?” And once again, is it about work? Is it about something that is going on in their personal life? Are they overwhelmed? And so, once you’re able to pick up the phone, a lot of times they say, “Oh, my God, your email was next in line. But I’m glad you called me because I can go ahead and get clarification because I wasn’t really sure on how to respond.” I’m telling you, I get more done by picking up the phone to the point where the feedback that I get from executives, “Tamara, we don’t know how you got this done. That person never responds.” But I always pick up the phone or back in the day when we were in the office, I would do a good old fashioned drive-by, meaning go to their desk, maybe with some Krispy Kreme, maybe with a Starbucks coffee. Whatever gets the job done.

SARAH: I love that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: It sounds as if one of your tactics, Tamara, is to kind of confound their expectations. Because people know when they are giving you the silent treatment, you’re probably starting to get a little bit pissed off and you come back with kindness.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: I never thought of it that way, but absolutely. And like I said, I execute because of these soft skills that people take for granted. People think project management is all about the Gantt charts, the risk, procurement, quality management, integration. It is about these soft slash power skills and getting grown people that have a whole life, families, kids, grandkids, fur babies, parents, aging parents that have moved in, to actually show up to work and execute their project. And how are we going to do that is these soft skills.

SARAH: Absolutely.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: So, Amy, I want to know how you get people to respond. You send one email, two emails. How do you get them to budge and respond to your emails?

AMY BERNSTEIN: I threaten them. No, I don’t threaten them. But I was listening to your answer and there’s such a powerful insight in there about coming back with kindness. What I generally do… I have to admit, it doesn’t happen that much, maybe with authors who aren’t responding. If it’s one of those deadline issues, I spell out the consequences. I’ll say, “If you don’t get back to me by Thursday, we’re going to have to bump this article from the next issue of the magazine, and I can’t guarantee when I will be able to get it into another issue.” And that’s real. Never make things up. With people who are hesitating to fulfill their commitments on a project team, I want to know why. Something’s going on. And I don’t want to pry, but I sort of open the conversation. You know, “You had promised that you would get us an answer today. I still haven’t heard from you. Can you give me an ETA, or is there something going on that’s preventing you? Anything I can help with?” It’s giving people a way to meet their commitments, which is what it all amounts to from my perspective. Right? So, Tamara, you’ve done all of this work to set up a project, you’ve kicked it off, it’s moving along. It has taken a tremendous amount of planning and management on your part, and suddenly something happens beyond your control. A budget gets cut, a pandemic hits, something beyond your control. How do you handle that? How do you respond to changes that you have no control over, that happen despite your best efforts?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Besides going to my car and having a good old-fashioned cry? So, after that’s over, after I get that good ugly cry out, I just realize, like you said, “This is beyond my control.” The budget got cut. And so, what we do in this situation is you have to be transparent to your team. People can sense that something is going on, and the last thing you want to do is to have your team start making up things in their mind. Is the project going to get cut? Are they going to get laid off? What is going to happen? And so, what you have to immediately do is not to just like project managers, we love to have a plan and go ahead and execute. You don’t have a plan right now. All you have is a little bit of information that you need to share with your team. So, that is the first thing. You share with your team, “This is where we’re at right now. I will get back to you in the next couple days on what the next steps are. I don’t know right now. Is this a scary situation? Absolutely. But you know I’m going to do all that I can and I’m going to be transparent as much as I can along the way.” I’m always an open book. Always open and honest communication.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Sarah, have you ever encountered any bumps that sort of set a project off track?

SARAH: Absolutely. About a month into my current job, the individual that was spearheading the project that I work on, he was fired. And so, we really had to regroup and figure out, Is this project going to continue? In what manner? What people? Is the scope going to change, et cetera. And these things happen. Big twists and turns or little, and we just have to roll with it, I suppose.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And you roll with it by being transparent. But the other thing that Tamara said that I think is so important is just keeping your wits about you. Go have that ugly cry in the car, but come back and be a calm and reassuring presence. Right? Before we close out this part of the conversation, Tamara, I want to know whether you have any other tips just for keeping a project on track toward completion?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: One thing that I make sure that I do within my projects is we try to never implement at the end of the year. That may sound like, “Well, why not, Tamara?” Because guess what? That’s Thanksgiving and Christmas and the new year. People are taking off. And that may seem like a no-brainer, but how many projects are people trying to complete at the end of the year when it’s unrealistic because you have so many people that are out of the office. And not just within your organization. Externally as well, meaning the business, end users. Everybody’s out of the office. Not just the whole country, the whole world.

SARAH: That’s a great point.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, you’ve gotten your project to the goal, you’ve produced the thing. It’s a report, it’s a building, whatever. But that’s not the end, is it, Tamara?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Absolutely not. You always have to celebrate. People will always say, “Tamara, what’s next? What are we going to do next?” We are going to celebrate. We’re going to talk about our lessons learned, but what we’re finding out, which is new to project management, if you wait until the project is over, let’s say we started this project January 2023 and we don’t end it until December, we don’t even know what we wore yesterday and what we ate yesterday. How are we going to remember what we did for the whole year? So, now for project management, every time we release or implement or just every 30 days, we’re going through those lessons learned. So, at the end of that project, we compile all the lessons learned, we bring all the people back to discover what could we have done different, what could we have done better? But more importantly, what is working and what should we do more of? That’s what a lot of times people miss. What is working well and what not should we just implement on this project, but throughout the organization to make things run better, more effectively and more efficiently?

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Sarah, have you thought about how you’re going to close out the project you’re working on now?

SARAH: That’s a great question. I don’t know if it will ever close. So, the project that I’m working on is an initiative for our university, and I think it is going to become its own freestanding office at the university that will be staffed and it will just continue to evolve over time. It will never end, I don’t think.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, with Sarah’s project that doesn’t actually end, what advice do you have, Tamara?

TAMARA MCLEMORE: To actually go ahead and close out a phase, close out a certain segment of the project. That way, you can do the rah rah, you can do the lessons learned, the whole ceremony of closing a project out. And then you start the next phase, meaning do you turn it over to operations? Do you do an upgrade? So, I would encourage you to go ahead and close it out at some point because the definition of project, it has a beginning and an end. Whether that end is two, three, four, five years, it does have an end. And even in my line of work, people will say, “Well Tamara, this is ongoing because this is in production.” At that point, it’s operations.

AMY BERNSTEIN: It also gives you an opportunity to recalibrate, right? Maybe you need a new charter, for example-

TAMARA MCLEMORE: Ooh, that’s a good one.

AMY BERNSTEIN: …for this next phase. Ooh, give me my degree.

TAMARA MCLEMORE: That’s a good one.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Sarah, we’ve now discussed beginnings and middles and ends. I’m wondering, given where you are with your project and a year into project management, what are you taking away from this conversation?

SARAH: I am taking away more confidence because, really, I thought to myself, “To be the best project manager means to be the most efficient. Get all the things done in the shortest amount of time. Quick, quick, quick. Efficient, efficient, efficient.” And, of course, that is a component to what we do, but I appreciate so much just as a human being, but also as a mental health professional, that working effectively with people is as essential as crossing things off of our list. And I didn’t know that we would be talking so much about that, but I’m just so heartened by the fact that I can also utilize my interpersonal skills, that all of those skills and that experience that I have is as applicable to my work as a project manager as my organizational and efficiency skills as well. And I just really, really appreciate that so much.

HANNAH BATES: You just heard project manager Tamara McLemore and Sarah, a new project manager – in conversation with Amy Bernstein on Women at Work.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

When you’re ready for more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos with the world’s top business and management experts, you’ll find it all at HBR.org.

This episode was produced by Amanda Kersey, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Tina Tobey Mack, Erica Truxler, Maureen Hoch, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.



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