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.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

SMART Goals? Not So Much.

Why We Should be Wearing Tights

Coaching Diversity Remotely (Part 2)

Coaching Diversity Remotely (Part 1)

When Collaboration Makes Things Worse

SMART Goals? Not So Much.

How many of you depend on the SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) tactic for improving performance? A large number, I'll wager, no matter what other type of performance system is in place. It makes a lot of sense. Who would not want goals that met those criteria?

Unfortunately, such goals do not work as well as described and typically used. The evidence is overwhelming in the literature, it just has not filtered down to how workers are managed.

Kenneth M. Nowack, Ph.D, in his article, Urban Talent Myths Exposed in (Talent Management Magazine), explains that, as recently as 2012 there was a study of workers that found that 15% strongly agreed that their goals helped them "achieve great things." That fact shows there is a gap between the ingrained beliefs behind goal-setting performance management programs and what actually is effective.

This blog focuses on helping you get past these kinds of misconceptions by reviewing actual science that helps us understand what really works. So let's look more closely at the evidence. According to Nowack, "nearly 200 published studies…have shown that deciding in advance under what conditions you will plan to implement a new behavior can significantly increase your chances of actually doing it." This is the missing piece of the puzzle, the technique that will make goals more effective than they are now.

The technique, according to Nowack is to plan performance improvement in this way:

“If situation X occurs, then I will initiate behavior Y to reach goal X.” This takes an extra level of planning effort than just coming up with SMART goals, but is very practical.

Given this, what are you to do to improve performance in your project?

  • Use the technique yourself. For those performance gaps you have, create statements using the structure above, keep them handy and at "top of your mind" and follow them.
  • Now that you have experience using the technique, explain it to others.
  • Communicate the technique as a tip for your workforce. It's not that difficult to explain and when everyone does not report to you, it a way to improve performance using your influence.
  • Use this technique in your coaching. It should not be difficult, as it is usually specific situations that cause you to coach in the first place when you are a project manager. These situations are "Situation X" in the structure above. An example of how you would coach a less-experienced team lead:
    "When we are in the weekly meeting to report updates on tasks, if you give just basic information on percent complete and wait for follow-up questions before providing extensive background information, I could use that as an example for your manager of your improvement in working in projects."

However you use the technique, be proud of the fact that you may be a step ahead of other leaders and even the human resource professionals in your organization. And that, project managers, is smart.

Posted on: August 28, 2015 04:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why We Should be Wearing Tights

Sure, we know that project managers can save their organizations by delivering projects that improve competitiveness in the marketplace or increase profitability. But according to new research, that's not all.

According to a study by Christopher G. Myers, Bradley R. Staats and Francesca Gino, project managers can do something else: help the organization learn better from failure. The authors did not mention project managers specifically, but bear with me for a few paragraphs and I will make the case.

The researchers found that one barrier to organizations learning from failure is "high perceived ambiguity of responsibility." Put in more basic terms, when responsibility for actions was not clear to workers, the tendency was to attribute failure to a source outside of their control. This tendency keeps the workforce - the organization - from learning from failure. This is why organizations continue to make the same mistakes.

Conversely, when workers perceived low ambiguity of responsibility - higher clarity on who is responsible for what - their tendency is to focus on themselves when attributing causes of failure. They then learn from failure. The organization as a whole can then improve.

Now think about this: One of your responsibilities as a project manager is to organize work and assign responsibility. So it follows that by doing this well, you are a key facilitator of organizational learning. Doing the following can help your organization improve:

  • Spend plenty of time and get plenty of input on your work plan, aiming for assigning  responsibilities to precise tasks
  • For those tasks that must be assigned to an individual that will be named later, monitor that these names are identified in a reasonable time.
  • Ensure that tasks are defined precisely so that assignees know the scope of the task
  • In early project communications to workers, make it a priority that everyone knows the scope of their activities and that they should bring up in advance any ambiguity. This will help create a work culture that fosters a sense of responsibility.
  • Have teams work together to make sure that there is no "I thought you were going to do that."
  • Monitor closely areas that are reorganizing or have had recent reorganizations where there is more risk of confusion over roles.
  • Make sure any team actions are also assigned an owner as often as possible at the time the action is identified.

It seems simple to have clear tasks assigned to individuals, so people underestimate the work it takes to do this right on a continual basis. You should not underestimate the difficulty. You should also realize that by doing so, you help workers take responsibility for their own tasks.

The more we know about the benefits of project management, the closer we appear to being super heroes. Maybe we should be wearing Spandex and capes!

OK, that might be going too far.

Posted on: August 21, 2015 12:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Coaching Diversity Remotely (Part 2)

The point of my last post was that coaching is both necessary and complex. Thinking about complexity  we were focusing on remote coaching of diverse individuals. Consider the complexity of coaching when you have individuals from different nationalities, work cultures, religions, geographies, ethnicities, economies, assumptions about working with supervisors, and so on.

Try these tips for coaching at a distance. They do not replace general good coaching practice, just help you with the special situation of diversity at a distance. (The term "coachee" refers to the individual who you are coaching.)

  • In general, it is more important in these cases to listen actively. Being separated geographically means that it is more important to pick up on signals or ask the right questions when you are unsure.

  • Make sure you know the coachee's understanding of the situation from the beginning. Explain briefly if the topic of the coaching session has not been discussed before. Then ask questions to confirm there is a common understanding - and acceptance.

  • Validate signals you think you hear during the conversation so that you do not misinterpret. Ask the coachee questions such as

    • What do you mean when you say….?
    • Are you are frustrated given the circumstances?
    • Does your work environment present obstacles ?
    • Do you have the skills you need in this case? Does your team?
  • Do you think you can make this change? Do you think you can be successful with the action plan we discussed?

  • Ask open-ended questions. Remember the letter "W" as the beginning of great open-ended questions.

    • What are your obstacles to performing as expected?
    • What help do you need from me? How do you want me to provide that help?
    • How do you intend to meet the obstacles? Fill the gaps?
  • To develop next steps, ask questions such as What is your goal? What will you measure to know that you are improving? Document this information and manage towards it in case it is uncommon to the coachee.

  • Avoid trying to fill in silence, be patient.

  • Prepare to make your comments in a respectful and constructive manner.

  • Communicate your feelings or judgements to make sure the listener is clear where you stand and not assuming there is a problem when there is not.

    • I understand what you mean.
    • I am happy that you are finding this satisfactory
    • Let me repeat back to you to make sure I understand.
    • I think these steps will be useful.
  • Let the coachee select the medium of communication, whether it be phone, video conference of some kind. That will put the individual more at ease.

With this special preparation and interaction, you can take an important step to getting the performance you need from your diverse and far-flung project team.

Posted on: July 26, 2015 09:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Coaching Diversity Remotely (Part 1)

You hear people say things like, "If you take away everything but my ability to (sell, speak to the public, etc.), I will survive." For project managers, increasingly, coaching is becoming one of those skills. It is a skill so valuable that it can make up for weaknesses in other skills.  Certainly it's saved me from difficult situations over the years.

Coaching in today's projects is as necessary as it is complex. 

It is necessary because you need those who report to you (solid line or dotted line) to be at top performance. This includes contingent workers who may be new to your organization or entering your project mid-stream. It is necessary because there are times where you have to intervene quickly before one problem starts a stream of other problems. It is necessary when you must stop interpersonal conflicts before they make things worse in your project.

But, perhaps more importantly, this is becoming more common:  project workers are not trained enough early on, leaving you or your designees to train during your project. Much of this training will have to be completed as coaching.

But - make no mistake - coaching can be complex, made more difficult when you are not geographically co-located. You may not see the individual's facial expressions or body posture, always very important, and you may have some cultural differences that keep you from that initial full understanding that is imperative to coming to a resolution.

What to coach about related to performance does not change even if someone is far away and in different culture. Just a few examples:

  • Coaching a team lead related to how a team is interacting
  • Coaching an individual regarding how he/she is being perceived
  • Closing an experienced worker's performance gap
  • Connecting with each individual involved in a conflict about the best way to proceed
  • Helping a new contingent worker navigate the current work culture

These are potentially difficult topics, and if you are working with a diverse workforce, you have to prepare in a special way to be sure you get it right, despite your desire to move quickly before things get any worse.

In a couple of days, I'll post tips for coaching "diversity remotely." Until then, consider the answer to this question about remote coaching:  What letter does the best coaching question begin with?

Posted on: July 20, 2015 09:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

When Collaboration Makes Things Worse

New research helps us understand how to use collaboration better - and the findings do not mesh with what is currently fashionable.

The guidance we are hearing now promotes collaboration strongly. This story by NPR, for example, explains how workers are being tagged and tracked to determine how they use and move about the workspace. The objective is to design workspaces so that workers interact more efficiently. The article  mentions experimentation using different snacks to find which is better to get people to congregate more in the break room.

What you know now is probably a summary of what has been reported as successful in previous years:  co-locate workers, and if they are geographically separated, use technology to help them feel they are closely connected, and so on. Co-location is a value of the SCRUM methodology as well.

But wait, all this togetherness is not always the best way! Sometimes it is better to separate workers.

We know this from a timely study where researchers had different groups solve problems in different ways. You can read about the details, but the summary for our purposes here is that collaborating close together was better for researching and gathering useful information. There was less redundant work and more got done.

On the other hand, when information was applied to coming up with solutions, togetherness brought about groupthink - too much consistency and reduced creativity. The researchers concluded that the two activities, information-gathering and solutioning, required different methods of using workers. The former was best done with close collaboration. The later was got better results with much less collaboration.

There was a comment in the last part of the NPR story where a workspace designer recommended putting in secluded areas where workers can be alone to avoid group think. It was the study mentioned here that really clarified one activity that required seclusion.

What can you do with this information to help improve performance?

  • Do support people collaborating generally. There really are benefits proven over many years.

  • Look for work that has a component where options must be created and a solution determined. Examples are:

    • Design for new mobile web pages

    • Options for training the project workforce or for business user group that is affected by technology change brought by project

    • Finding vendors and technological solutions

    • Resolving complex project issues

  • When "solution work" is found, try to structure the process into two phases, fact-finding followed by solutioning.

    • Organize participants in the first phase, if needed, to collaborate to divide and conquer the work. For example, they could list training topics needed by the business user group.

    •  For the solutioning phase, organize a small group to work as individuals to come up with the best solution for covering those topics. Continuing with the example, working separately, the project training lead and a couple of senior reps from the user group who are working to be supervisors create separate solutions. Perhaps these could be judged by the manager of the user group to be trained. The point is that the solution is more likely to be innovative and effective if determined in this way.

Try this tactic in a small way in your project. Maybe it will catch on and you will have been a change agent to create a more innovative culture in your organization. Sometimes the project manager role can be very powerful.

Posted on: June 01, 2015 09:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Maybe this world is another planet's hell."

- Aldous Huxley