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

Be Ready for Power Dynamics in Tollgates, Major Issue Escalation

How to Focus Attention on the Highest Priorities

Prioritization Gets More Done

A Surpising Bad Assumption Interfering With Communications

Disengagement and Low Unemployment - A Toxic Combination

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 (1)

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)

A Surpising Bad Assumption Interfering With Communications

Does having experience working with your team improve communications among the individuals in your team? What do you think?

Kenneth Savitsky conducted research on this question - that should have an obvious answer - and ended up with a surprise. He found that there is not that much difference in ability to understand close family members and friends over strangers. And our assumptions to the contrary cause problems.

In his experiments, he brought in groups of couples. Some were married and some were strangers. Participants generally predicted that they would communicate easier with those close to them. But Savitsky found that miscommunication was equal when they were put to the test.

The problem that you care about is this:  when people who are closer do something new, they overestimate how their closeness will help them communicate in the new situation.

So in project management, if your team starts a project that has many new elements, you all may overestimate your ability to communicate and there will be situations, for instance, where a team member may go off and do something that a team mate did not want.

Another example situation:  You know people pretty well before going into a project together for the first time. You all overestimate how your friendship will help you communicate in this project work.  Later, problems arise as a team mate is completing a task incorrectly under the assumption she understood a conversation with her friends on the project team. Not even the other team mates agree what was decided at that routine meeting. This was supposed to be easy! Why are the friends now in frustrated conflict?

Imagine the awkwardness.

So if you thought that you can communicate better with someone you are closer to or have more of a history with, your expectations are wrong. And this incorrect assumption can get you into trouble.

Take the proper steps in two situations:  when you are trying to be understood and when you are trying to understand what

Avoid the assumption that you are being understood:

  • Be alert in all communications for miscommunications
  • Give positive examples and incorrect examples when communicating something rather complex or new.
  • Create meeting notes for all meetings and request review and comment.
  • Use email rather than phone communications to get specifics documented.
  • Consider using a face-to-face meeting or phone conversation to get a team started on a new topic or task. This will help you understand tone and body language.

Avoid the assumption that you understand:

  • Think about how you can be misinterpreting what is being said by a friend on the project. Ask questions to clarify
  • Listen as if a speaker you have worked with for a while is someone you don't know well.
  • Repeat what you heard back to someone immediately after you heard it.
  • Re-state action items or let people approve of your wording in written notes to follow. (This helps handle those situations where you have questions after the conversation is over.)

Your team depends on you to ensure communication is good. Your project success depends on good communication.

Get a PDF of the study here if you like scientific detail.

Posted on: June 05, 2016 04:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Disengagement and Low Unemployment - A Toxic Combination

As a country, Germany is doing well economically, but there is a problem in the workforce. A large number of employees in Germany are "disengaged" at work.  That means that these employees are not involved in, enthusiastic about or committed to their work, coworkers and workplace. They do not give 100% and may even undermine productivity.

Sounds unfortunate for the disengaged workers, but is there something you can learn from this situation?

As a matter of fact, there is. An economy can be humming along, yet that does not mean that in an organization - your organization - workers are satisfied and engaged. Workers can be suffering from disengagement with its negative consequences on your project. There just seems to be no correlation that suggests peaks in economic measures means happy days in your project. I would caution even that low unemployment may make your life as a project manager worse when workers are disengaged.

Look at Germany for instance. According to Gallup, the annual absenteeism rate in Germany is "67% higher among actively disengaged employees compared with engaged workers." Think about your projects and how absenteeism will slow down work and add to costs.

Even worse, disengaged workers are more likely to be looking for another job. That will create a new problem. The article mentions something that has been covered previously on the Eye on the Workforce blog: studies have shown that costs related to replacing an employee can be as high as 1.5 times the employee's annual salary. In Germany, according to the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Germany's federal job agency) it took 84 days to fill a vacancy with a qualified employee in 2015, on average. That's 19 more days than it took to fill a vacancy in 2008. You might have already experienced difficulty finding new workers or replacements those who have left.

And here is the factor that multiplies your problem: Disengaged workers are more likely to leave. Gallup found in Germany for example that 87% of engaged employees strongly agreed that they planned to be with their current company three years from now. For actively disengaged workers only 21% strongly agreed that they planned to be with their current company three years from now. More likely to leave - and to leave you in the lurch. Low unemployment can make it even more difficult for you to maintain the productive resources you need in your project.

Employee engagement does not have to do with economics as much as it has to do with management policies. (There are many other articles and posts on employee engagement by me on this site.) If workers are disengaged at your workplace, be prepared for low morale and a schedule will that has to adapt to absenteeism and extended periods of replacing workers.

How has employee disengagement - and perhaps low unemployment - affected your project?

Posted on: May 03, 2016 07:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

"If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself."

- Eubie Blake

Test your PM knowledge