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

Generations & Work Ethic

The "Hidden" Effort You Should Really Manage Better

Be Ready for Power Dynamics in Tollgates, Major Issue Escalation

How to Focus Attention on the Highest Priorities

Prioritization Gets More Done

Generations & Work Ethic

Do you think that one  generation has a better work ethic than others? What have you seen in your workplace? Are you frustrated by those in other generations?

Choose an answer to this question. Which generation has a stronger work ethic?

  • Millennials  (born between 1981 and 1999)
  • Gen X  (born between 1965 and 1980)
  • Baby Boomers  (born between 1946 and 1964)

A recent study looked into this topic with a statistical study. They went into the study stipulating that evidence was mixed from previous studies. And I'm sure you have your own anecdotes from your experiences.

We try not do have stereotypes about generations, our own and others, but sometimes it is difficult to avoid. And the generations have differences in what the researchers note has been called "significant life events at critical development stages". The point that beliefs and attitudes have been shaped by these shared histories is well proven.

For Boomers the influences include the Viet Nam War, civil rights for African-Americans and assassinations of prominent leaders. Boomers have been loyal to their employers and place work as central to their lives.

Members of Generation X were influenced by the first Iraq War, the President Bill Clinton sex scandal, school shootings, the HIV epidemic and reality television. There was a tendency for them to leave home and come back. They hesitated to commit to long-term relationships, perhaps because of the high divorce rate from their collective parents. They strive for work-family balance. The tend to want to work autonomously.

Millennials have been influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the second Iraq War, and the election of the first African-American president. There has not been that much research about their work experience and preferences because they are new to the workplace, but the researchers mention these traits among others:  confident, team-oriented, and achievement-oriented.

That's a lot of diversity in the workplace, so this basic an understanding will help you manage the potential conflicts in the workplace. Members of any generation can look at the others in the workplace and be annoyed or frustrated. My favorite generational bias is Gen Xers feeling that Boomers have a feeling of entitlement while Boomers feel that Millennials have a feeling of entitlement. Awareness of this kind of thing will help you develop ways to get individuals and groups to work together better.

But does either group have a better work ethic than the others? That's a pretty basic value. The researchers looked very carefully at this in a way that allowed them to put statistics to the analysis. They found that there was not really a difference between the generations when it comes to work ethic.  

So how do you use this information?

  • Do not assume that one generation works less hard than another. They may tend to work differently, and you need to know that. It helps you be a better manager of people. It helps you understand individuals so that you can place them in a role where they fit and can excel.
  • Be aware of your own biases and use your knowledge of generations to help you avoid negative stereotyping by age or generation. This will get you in trouble as much as stereotyping by gender, race or national origin.
  • Use your knowledge of generational influences and tendencies to help you build rapport with others. Connect with and appreciate their interests, values and priorities. Find out about them as individuals. You manage individuals, not generalizations.

Have you been stereotyped because of your generation? What have you experienced with these differing generations in the same workplace?

Posted on: October 20, 2016 11:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The "Hidden" Effort You Should Really Manage Better

Every once in a while, I am reminded that  there is an important chunk of work that occurs at predictable times and is rarely accounted for properly. That's sad, because if this effort can be accounted for, there is significant benefit for a project manager.

Why is this hidden work such a big deal? It can be substantial, but it is often treated like it is nothing. So those who do the work feel like their efforts are perceived as trivial. And they could blame you, the project manager.

And you don't want that.

It all starts when your project requires a formal change. Remember, this situation is predictable. It could be additional scope, schedule update or need for more money - doesn't matter. You then, of course, request estimates from various resources/teams in your project for their portion of the change. And you need these estimates quickly...the change control presentation is imminent!!

People spend a significant amount of time estimating the impact of a change. Take a common example, new requirements being added midstream during a waterfall PM process. Various teams must stop what they are doing, or add hours to their day, to calculate having to restart the requirements, design and development steps (among others). They have to make sure new requirements trace through to testing. There are dependencies to consider. This estimation work interferes with other work they planned to do and if they have to add hours, all their work suffers from lower productivity and even quality.  

It can be seen as a distraction or due to someone else's incompetence and not be given the attention it deserves. It can be seen as something you as project manager should have avoided.

That's not good.

And then you can be frustrated that it takes so long to complete. You wonder, how can this take so long? It's just a quick estimate! Meanwhile, estimators remember all the times that they rushed estimates and underestimated the work, only to be chastised later for going over budget.

That's certainly not helpful.

Put in this light, it should be clear that you should account for the estimation work to be handled in a more sophisticated manner.
How do you do this?

First, define a separate project activity to represent the analysis and estimation effort. It should have a set duration, agreed to by estimators.

Next, include a task in the activity to actually estimate the effort of estimation. OK, that sounds pretty bureaucratic, but follow me here. You just need to show something like number of estimators and hours for each to do their analysis and estimate. Add in time and resources for administrative work, along with production and delivery of the change request presentation. You are involved in that, right? And it is time-consuming in your experience, right?

Now you will have activity duration, resources and hours involved. Believe me that this will show you, stakeholders and decision-makers an objective picture of the surprising hidden impact of the change control process.

But, also, this will show respect for the pitiful lot who has to complete the analysis and estimates. Get them involved from the beginning, as this starts at a predictable time. Have them track all change request analysis work separately. You will win over some fans. They will very quickly see your genius.

Posted on: September 28, 2016 11:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Be Ready for Power Dynamics in Tollgates, Major Issue Escalation

Categories: Learning, Manage People

There are many situations you have to be prepared for when you are a project manager. One of these is when those with the most power are going to meet to make a decision on your project, as when you are in a tollgate or a major issue resolution.

New research at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business helps you do better in your preparation. You see, they documented a problem in meetings where high level leaders do not collaborate well on a solution. Power dynamics between the individuals get in the way. Unlike other stakeholders you may be used to, the most powerful have to spend time determining who has what authority when they work together.  

You do not want to have this problem interfere with your project, of course, so you have to know successful tactics to avoid the decision being delayed.

Say that you are preparing for a tollgate. Generally, you have to show you are ready for the next phase of activities considering financials, scope and schedule. There are some significant risks you have identified in your presentation. High level leaders are present representing compliance, finance, line of businesses, PMO, Technology, legal and more. They all have a large stake in the status and potential outcome of your project and most are sensitive to the risks you are highlighting. And they are used to getting their way in their own areas.

At this moment the powerful leaders may have to spend time figuring out their relationship before getting to the decision, according to the study. This makes getting a positive decision, even any decision, at this meeting more difficult.

Want to avoid this problem? Try the tactic used in the multinational negotiations. When world leaders get into the same room, you can imagine how they can spend time seeing who has the advantage. To avoid this, lower-level managers agree on details of any agreement in advance.

In your project, you can ensure your workforce gets agreement on your readiness from those who report to the powerful leaders who will be decisioning your tollgate. This will inoculate your project from a surprise denial. Get your presentation drafted in advance and socialize that presentation to direct reports of high-level leaders. They will help you identify and include justification information that is relevant to the leader. Mention in your presentation that your team worked with their representatives so that the decision-making leaders will trust that you have prepared for the next phase carefully, and have considered the issues.

This may be more than what is normally required in your tollgate presentation, but when your project is evaluated by high-level leaders that see your project's status and issues for the first time in the tollgate, this tactic can make the difference between success and delay.

Have you experienced delays due to high-level leaders not making a decision? Let me know.

Posted on: August 17, 2016 08:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

How to Focus Attention on the Highest Priorities

In my last post the importance of managing to priorities (important tasks that are urgent) was illustrated. But wait, there's more.

There are more communication tactics to make sure workers and partners are focusing on the most urgent important tasks. You can break through their competing work and endless distractions and help them better organize their time by helping them make better choices about what to do now.

General rule:  When you communicate about tasks, include some measure of prioritization.

In your messages, focus on high-importance items as the highest priority. Identify them with highlighting. Put them at the top of lists. Mark them clearly such as "Priority: High" or "Important & Urgent."

Keep the highest current priorities in your mind.
Before meetings. Before just walking around, think about the priorities you want to communicate to your workers. Refresh you view every morning, every week, whatever is appropriate. New events bring about new priorities. You spend time thinking about this so that the workforce does not have to. You distill the wide project down to the critical priorities now.

When I have project teams in a meeting, I organize topics by priority. The agenda even has a column saying priority rather than topic number. This way, prioritization saturates all topics.

Communicate highest priority proactively in the field.
Talk proactively to team leads, partners, vendors, SMEs. Ask them what they are working on. Is it the highest priority task? Do they know the highest priority task? If not, pass on that information to them positively and constructively.

Help workers avoid low priority activities.
Tell them clearly that they can push out non-important urgent work to focus on important high-priority work. Low importance urgent work is the arch enemy of important work. Once they realize this trap, it will more likely become a habit. They will do this for all their work that competes with your project work, giving them more time overall to work on your project tasks.

When setting priorities, keep an open mind.
Priorities are important enough so that you want to discuss them with those affected. When setting priorities, treat the discussion as a two-way conversation rather than force your opinion on others. You may focus on the critical path as an obvious indicator of what is highest priority but your partners and team leaders could have another interpretation that you need to consider. They may have new information. They may indicate that they are not supporting your view so you know if you are in a troublesome situation. Open your mind and discuss items that you think are a critical priority. Ask if anyone disagrees. Make sure they talk and do not just be silent. Remind them that silence is consent. Help them feel comfortable sharing their opinion. Ask if there are any competing priorities that are relevant in the decision to set a priority on a task.


Remember, priority is like temperature. It is high or low. Do you know how to dress when someone tells you it is "temperature" outside? No. Likewise, don't tell someone that a task is a priority. Everything they are delegated is a priority. Help them understand what is the highest priority now. They will do the rest.

Posted on: July 20, 2016 11:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prioritization Gets More Done

Your project workers are busier than ever. They are working on your project, other projects, and completing work for the organization as a whole, going to training, charity work, special initiative team activities and more.

It is easy to let this overwhelm your ability to succeed in your project. Don't let it! There is still a way for you to get work done more efficiently. You have a powerful tool called prioritization. Prioritization is powerful because:

  • It works better the more work project workers have weighing them down.
  • When you prioritize what should happen in the project, you are being positive rather than saying what is going wrong.
  • Project workers are still empowered to do their own work, so you do not appear to be controlling.
  • You do not point out anyone's inadequacies, you focus on key tasks.

And it's not difficult to find times to use this tool. Opportunities to prioritize occur naturally in your duties as a project manager, for instance when you

  • Tell work teams about the upcoming tasks
  • Communicate to project workers about what is expected in the upcoming phase
  • Conduct a kickoff meeting
  • Talk with a team about their percent work complete on a set of tasks.

What you can probably improve on is using "prioritization language" more during these opportunities. Two key terms are urgent and important to the project. Urgent means the due date is now or very soon. An urgent task may need to be done, but does not have to be important to the project. Many urgent tasks are not very important.

A task that is important to the project has more value to the success of the project. For example,

  • A task that removes a risk causing the project to be overall status Red is more important than getting meeting notes out within the expected time.
  • One task may be a higher priority because it is on the critical path and another task has in actuality an extra week to complete before it delays the project schedule as a whole .
  • An activity might be a higher priority to your project because you have plenty of evidence that there will be delays associated with it, so you want to make sure it is started on time or earlier.

You don't want project workers bogged down in lower-priority urgent work and not getting to what is important, but that's what commonly happens. The vicious cycle is that once people focus on non-important urgent items, they take their eyes off of important tasks that can reduce the number of urgent tasks, causing more past-due frantic work. Putting out fires replaces time for team work planning.

Within any week, you can set and communicate the high-priority work tasks. You can also ask what non-urgent activities are interfering with time for important (high-priority) tasks. In my next post, I'll cover ways to communicate priorities so that the important work will take precedent in the project workforce. You'll also see how prioritization can help you build your reputation.

In the meantime, let me know what you are experiencing in your project workforce related to priorities (or lack thereof) and I'll try to use your examples in that post.

Posted on: June 20, 2016 10:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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