Eye on the Workforce

Workforce management is a key part of project success, but project managers often find it difficult to get trustworthy information on what really works. From interpersonal interactions to big workforce issues we'll look the latest research and proven techniques to find the most effective solutions for your projects.

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Improve Workforce Performance Through Better Task Management Part 2

Improve Workforce Performance Through Better Task Management

A Surprising Way To Improve Your Reward Program

More Ways to Fight Caustic Culture

Don't Give in to Caustic Cultures

Improve Workforce Performance Through Better Task Management Part 2

My last post was about improving the basics of documenting action items. But is that all you want to do? Are you just a good project manager? Don't you want to excel in multiple areas? Sure you do and high productivity in task management is key to improving project team performance,

To get the maximum amount of productivity, especially in larger projects, you should maintain additional columns of information. This will require a spreadsheet or similar function on a web share. It will allow you to filter and sort a large number of action items for efficient management.

Here are a couple more columns to use.

Status . . . The purpose of this column is to display progress on the action. Immediately, you will see that two statuses are basic: In Progress and Closed. You want to be able to filter out all items that have been closed without losing a record that they were worked and completed.

But also consider using Entered. You want to distinguish items just entered at a meeting from those that have been formally delegated. Imagine the situation where someone is delegated as Responsible for an action item in a meeting where that person does not attend. You can't call that In Progress. Your job as project manager will be to ensure these items are properly delegated. It's much easier when you can filter a list to get all those with status Entered.

Maybe improvements can be made in how fast items delegated to those not in meeting.

Target or Solution Source . . . This is the place where you list the person, group or organization that will be where you go for resolution of the action. It may be a vendor, a group in Technology, the business sponsor, a SME, or some other group.

How does this add productivity? Imagine having a very long action item list created over many days from many meetings and individuals and also wanting to be as efficient as possible in knocking these action items out. You have a meeting with the vendor and know that you have many action items connected to that vendor. Not having the Target column, you would have to look through details of all the action items to derive what the target is. With this column, you can quickly filter to get a list of items just for the vendor. Neat. Sweet.

Another example:  If you are getting ready for a meeting with the business sponsor, as part of your preparation, you simply filter this list to find all items listed for sponsor. Now you have time to actually get the sponsor's attention!

To get the most benefit, use the same spreadsheet, shared datasheet or web share list for documenting actions and questions from all meetings. You just have to have the ability to sort and filter.

I'll provide more ideas in the future. In the meantime, let me know: What has worked for you?

Posted on: December 16, 2014 07:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Improve Workforce Performance Through Better Task Management

Have you seen action items that look like this in meeting notes or on formal action item lists?

  • Need planning info from ops team
  • Tell architecture about issue
  • Change date to match sponsor's

During discussions, all of these made sense. But later, will people remember what each meant? It's the documentation that is lacking. This inadequate quality appears in hastily written or typed notes or just through bad habits. Unfortunately, written action items like these may lead to tasks that are not completed on time because workers did not know

  • who was to complete the task
  • exactly what to do
  • when the deadline was to complete the task.

You are a project manager who wants to ensure a high-performing workforce, so don't allow bad task documentation to get in the way. You have a lot of control over this, especially if you maintain a single compiled list of action items from all meetinhgs and discussions that many in the project contribute to.

Your objective is to enable someone to complete the task easily from the information documented.

First, make sure you get the basics documented every time. Everyone should make this a habit. Obtain these components:

Description . . . A clear, full statement of the task/goal. The trick here is to specify when it is truly done. That is, what exactly is the result desired. The three examples at the beginning do not do this well. Capture details here or expect problems.

Task Owner . . . The individual (not a team or group or role name!) that will ensure the task is completed. This person can delegate or get help, but is still responsible for getting the task done. The owner does not have to be at the meeting, so the clear, complete description is then even more important.

Date Started . . . You need this to track those items that are taking too long to complete and to have a record for future audits or lessons learned. There is another advantage that will be covered in the next post.

Due Date . . . This is important to create a sense of urgency in the owner. In addition, you can sort on due dates to bring attention to those that are due soonest. Sometimes Due Date is avoided because it is not clear at the moment what the due date is. The date can be so far in the future the date is not able to be specified. In these cases, would you put something like "N/S" or "TBD"? Don't do that. You need something to help manage your list of action items better. Instead of a particular date, you can put something like

  • "Prior to Build Phase"
  • "Before requirements document is complete"
  • "Before scheduling onsite visit"
  • "During close out activities"

These date alternatives provide a better tickler system when managing a longish list of action items. 

It is difficult to be complete and accurate on action items if you wait for the end of a meeting and have to cram everything in, so define the action items clearly as they arise in discussion and think of what the task owner has to know. Get everyone in the habit.

If your project team reviews action items every week, you should maintain this kind of rigor. You as the project manager, or your project coordinator, can review the action item list proactively to find basic documentation gaps that should be filled before or during the next task management meeting. Sort on due dates to see which items to discuss first. I recommend this approach over reviewing by the order in which they were created. 

Even with these tips you still have more productivity to gain. I'll provide more tips in my next post. Count on it - it's on my action item list.  

Posted on: November 19, 2014 11:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

A Surprising Way To Improve Your Reward Program

There is an easy way to improve your reward program and you would be hard pressed to guess it. It doesn't take any more money or larger rewards.

If your reward system uses gifts of some kind, for example, logo cups, umbrellas, or any other kind of merchandise, all you have to do is split the items into two groups and allow selection from each group. Use any groupings you want, they don't even have to make much sense! The study showed that what is important is to build the desire to avoid missing out on the opportunity.

So consider how you can use this information:

  • Set up a reward system where there are two categories. If you already have some kind of points-based gifts for recognition in progress, for example, you add another category for time away. Time away is very desirable. Refer to previous posts in The Eye.
  • Your time away category can have multiple options. For example, half-day off Mon, half-day off Tue, and so on.
  • There are other options for your two categories. Get free coupons from local restaurants to give out. Logo merchandise from your organization, hoarded by the Marketing people. A desk item, frivolous or useful.

But there's more! Looking at another report on rewards helps you refine your plans.

Make sure you connect rewards and recognition to organizational values.

  • Your core values have already been designed to meet your mission and vision. They help everyone work together toward this goal - even in your project.
  • It just confuses the workforce if you reward behavior that actually goes against those values. You want to bolster those values, build on them, reinforce them.

Make sure you clearly connect rewards and recognition to desired behavior and performance.

  • Base your evaluation on project performance metrics that that measure performance or productivity, such as meeting deadlines, helping others reach their goals, going beyond expectations in results, making improvements in processes, templates, etc.


If you do not have a lot of support in your organization for expenditures for rewards, consider recognition emails/letters from high-level leaders. Don't give up on some kind of effective reward system. It can set you apart from other managers in a time where the workforce really needs some support.

Posted on: November 05, 2014 07:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

More Ways to Fight Caustic Culture

In my last post, the topic was a recent workforce survey and solutions to its highest-rated problem: crushing deadlines. But the respondents identified other high-ranking problems in the daily work environment that you can and should deal with in some way.

Interruptions and broken processes, for example. This is not the first time we have seen a survey rank interruptions high on worker's complaint list. These appear to be pretty universal., so if you did not do anything the last time ideas were given for interruptions, I urge you to do so now.

Try the following:

  • In your next meeting, ask if interruptions are affecting productivity and causing people to work long hours.
  • Ask them if they think use of personal social media, checking emails or messages are part of the problem for them or their teams. These were identified in the AtTask survey and others.
  • Make time for discussions on reducing distractions. Come up with recommendations for the team and for working with others.
  • Create team rules that will help everyone. Give the team ownership to select rules and enforce.
  • You are a leader. Exemplify the change. If your team says that you are causing interruptions, then make a strong public effort to adjust.

In the survey, non-existent or broken processes were also a major source of frustration. Broken processes can be seen as outside of the control of the project team, so workers feel especially helpless.

But this is not necessarily so in all cases. Consider a phase planning exercise where you ask the following questions of the team responsible for tasks during the phase.

  • What is likely to go wrong?
  • Who owns the process that is broken or non-existent?
  • What are ways we can avoid this problem?
  • If we cannot avoid, then what are our alternatives?
  • Is it possible to recommend a fix or alternative? (Following an alternate process might be good where you have a smaller project and do not want to follow the complex process for a larger project.)
  • Can we pilot a new/alternate process in our project after we create it?

Note that fixing these problems in some way will reduce the second-highest spoiler of the workday: never-ending overtime. Yes, if work flows smoothly (no interruptions and all processes are efficient) workers can be more productive. Being more productive means they will not have to work as long hours to get the expected amount of work done.

In both cases above, you are wearing your facilitator hat, not solving the problem yourself. Playing this role also shows your concern  with the daily problems experienced by your workers, itself useful in helping them cope with these problems and thinking of you as a leader.

Posted on: September 30, 2014 06:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Don't Give in to Caustic Cultures

Does this sound like your workplace?

  • Crushing deadlines
  • Never-ending overtime
  • Agonizing interruptions and broken processes
  • Famine of recognition and purpose

According to a proprietary survey conducted by AtTask, those are four characteristics of today's workplaces. Yikes. That is no place to get a project delivered.

Unfortunately, in cases like this, project managers can think, "Well, I can't do anything about these kinds of problems. They are the responsibility of people above my pay grade''. Still it is you who suffer the consequences.

Is there anything you can do? Push yourself to think of options. Not all may be possible, but you may identify a shrewd way to mitigate these circumstances. Perhaps a way that may also help you be seen as a better manager, a better leader, someone valuable to have in the organization, someone who is one of the top performers.

Here are some ideas. Try them or use them to inspire your own ideas. The fact is that it is not possible to continue to overuse your workforce and still get needed productivity. Instead, you will lose productivity to one or more of the following:

  • Turnover
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sickness/absenteeism
  • Exhaustion/burnout

Consider the top listed item from the survey : Crushing deadlines for the workforce.

When planning, think about the factors that cause this to happen and nip them in the bud. If sponsors or internal customers routinely demand impossibly short durations, provide initial estimates that are longer at first, then allow cutting down to a more manageable level. Everything is a negotiation. Your justification in this case is that you are basing your initial durations/timelines on recent history (lessons learned) of the organization. You are considering current resource constraints and stakeholder participation (or something similar).

In case you are now past the planning stage in your project and are experiencing crushing deadlines that everyone has just simply come to expect without thinking about it, what can you do? It's part of the culture.

Take refuge in your project management processes and practices. Log and raise an issue that an upcoming deadline may be missed. Have a substantial list of reasons based on input you get from the workforce, partner groups and stakeholders involved. It's got to be honest, accurate list, but you should be able to get plenty of input that can be trusted. Communicate this through normal report-outs and escalation channels.

Show your optimism and can-do attitude by providing a resolution plan, "go to green" plan, whatever you call it to add a couple of more weeks, or whatever is needed to complete the work. You will have asked your workforce how much longer they need to create this plan.

Now be careful, don't blame it on one person or group. This is a prescription for conflict that will spoil your plans. No one wants to be blamed in this kind of environment and they will attack you professionally and personally if they are backed into a corner. Instead, describe a general problem across the organization, "existing in multiple areas" you might say. It could be a resource constraint, holidays, delays in getting access to leaders due to an offsite strategic planning period, new regulatory compliance initiative taking time from multiple groups, whatever. Seize upon the opportunity to communicate the problem and get more time. It's better than missing the deadline with little advance attention and communication. No leaders like surprises.

What if you really really to want to blame one or more people? Goodness knows this is a real problem sometimes. As a more constructive alternative than blaming, gird yourself and go to these individuals and get their take on the situation. They too may be having the same problem. Or they may have a rationale that helps you understand and communicate the obstacles you face to meeting your crushing deadline.

As a project manager you may face stiff odds to meeting certain deadlines. Do not give in to despair. Be creative in seeking solutions that work in your organization. That will put you in the small percentage of persistant professionals who get things done when others only find obstacles and excuses.

What other ideas might work in certain situations for crushing deadlines? How have you been successful? What have you learned?


In future posts, I'll look into dealing creatively with the other characteristics.

Posted on: September 17, 2014 06:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

"He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot."

- Groucho Marx