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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Recent Posts

More Ways to Fight Caustic Culture

Don't Give in to Caustic Cultures

PM Is Perfect Job to Hone Most Desired Executive Trait

Exploit Crisis for Targeted PMO Improvements 2

Exploit Crisis for Targeted PMO Improvements

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)

PM Is Perfect Job to Hone Most Desired Executive Trait

Do you exhibit the most desired executive trait? If you do, it certainly makes your work easier and even benefited your career.

So see if you can pick the “most desired executive trait” as determined in the  IIC Partners survey of leaders from this list of desired traits:

  • Strong Communication Skills
  • Decisiveness
  • Vision
  • Performs Well
  • Ability to Motivate

This should be a pretty easy choice. Executives around the world chose this 3:1 over the next most desired trait which is "Performs well."

I've got to admit, I might not have guessed it although I know of its importance. I might not have guessed because we are talking about executives ranking their own most desired trait. I may have been led astray by my experience or Dilbert. Anyway, the trait they chose overwhelmingly is Ability to Motivate.

Do you see why I would have selected something different? Is it your experience that executives are great motivators?

If you are a project manager and you have the ability to motivate, you can better get project teams to meet deadlines with expected quality. You can get stakeholders to participate more often. You can get decision-makers to make decisions. You can get your project core team to focus on the correct tasks and follow the best project management process. And that is good for everyone.

And, if you are thinking about moving up in the organization, there is even more reason to build your motivation skills. It's what executives are looking for in other executives they are hiring. The good news is that you can build and show off your motivation skills as a project manager!

There are many posts in Eye on the Workforce on motivation (filter the posts on Leadership or Performance Improvement to start) not to mention the rest of the site. You can find plenty of other resources on this topic.

Posted on: August 19, 2014 10:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Exploit Crisis for Targeted PMO Improvements 2

Categories: Manage People

OK, the last post was a cliff-hanger. You are in the middle of a crisis! But it is an opportunity to add a new PMO responsibility - as long as you are careful.

Recall that the problem is that uncontrolled projects are heading to tollgates at a similar time causing conflicts with resources and schedules. Your immature PMO does not currently control tollgate scheduling.

Use these tactics to seize this opportunity:

Create the rules and steps to resolve immediate problems only. For example, if many tollgates are scheduled around the same time in the near future, the PMO should not try to boil the ocean by putting in place a tollgate schedule and process for the rest of the year. Instead, the solution should be resolving the immediate backlog with the participation of stakeholders and leaders.

Specifically, get agreement from stakeholders on ways to prioritize projects and ideas for acceptable scheduling strategies. Use these agreements and ideas to create your plan to resolve the immediate problem.

Socialize and seek approval for plan, but, because the problem is immediate and you want show that you are responsive, assume you will get approval and start to implement the solution right away. The PMO can prioritize and create a tollgate schedule consistent with the plan, making adjustments as feedback warrants.

Once the PMO has approval to implement some prioritizing and scheduling solution, execute to the plan. Remember to document how it works and how it can be improved.

As soon as the backlog of tollgates has been dealt with and the previous frustrations are still fresh in the minds of stakeholders and leaders, it will be the perfect time to suggest that the PMO continue to manage tollgate schedules "so we don't have to go through that again." And guess what, you just happen to have a process agreed to by stakeholders previously, with some improvements based on learnings from actually following the "pilot" version of the process. You also showed that you were responsive to the needs for projects to maintain progress.

That's the way to build trust and responsibility during a crisis. If your PMO typically acts only as a source of best practices, there are numerous situations where you can use the same tactics to build areas of responsibility. You just need to identify an appropriate crisis or conflict point and be ready to react. You probably already know the pain points. Have solutions standing by and be ready to swoop in for a fast resolution to build respect for your capabilities.

Posted on: July 31, 2014 08:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Exploit Crisis for Targeted PMO Improvements

Categories: Manage People

This month we are talking about improving the PMO. There's a lot of opportunity here, but generally new PMO services will have to be built in an evolutionary fashion rather than a revolutionary fashion.

This is especially true if the PMO is at a maturity level where it provides guidance and best practices to the organization it serves. It cannot garner much respect at this point because it will not be seen to have much impact on results. How does such a PMO grow into a more valuable group?

By coming to the rescue in a crisis.

It is better in this case to wait until the time is right, when a problem is hurting a large number of stakeholders and a consensus can be attained for a particular improvement.

Here's how this can be achieved. Assume project managers and stakeholders are complaining in the hallways about how they are frustrated with the chaotic environment. They say that too many projects are using resources at once. Now tollgates are coming up for many projects and the problem is magnified with the same resources scrambling to ensure each project is prepared for review. You can see that stakeholders, some of whom have resources prepping for the tollgates and some of whom are leaders of business units that will suffer from any delays, are in agreement that there is a problem.

What you have here is a crisis that can be exploited for targeted improvement. This is the time when the lowly PMO can step in with specific solutions that will satisfy a broad spectrum of stakeholders. But you have to be ready in advance!

This is not all that difficult. If you are in the PMO, then you have probably looked ahead many times and anticipated what problems are going to happen when. You may even know of business cycles or release cycles that generate periodic crises. The tactics to use to be ready and to execute the targeted improvement are more clear using the example of the tollgate traffic jam.

I'll post the tactics and steps in a couple of days.

Until then, consider these questions:

  • Are PMO changes better effected as evolutionary or revolutionary changes?
  • Can a lowly PMO that serves mainly as a source of guidance and best practices see into the future and anticipate crises?
Posted on: July 29, 2014 07:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

"You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"

- Steven Wright