Managing Through Informational Diversity

PMI Northeast Indiana Chapter

“Projects are the means by which NASA explores space, expands scientific knowledge and performs research on behalf of the nation.” — NASA/SP-2010-3407


Scientists, engineers, mathematicians and all highly skilled people bring an “extra dose” of informational diversity—which is based on different functional, educational and industry backgrounds that constitute information and knowledge resources upon which the team draws.

Organizations often create cross-functional teams that enhance informational diversity (the effort is typically too complex for a generalist to have all the answers). Members with different expertise are chosen to achieve a common goal and are mutually accountable for the team’s success

Reasons for cross-functional teams include:

  • Rapid pace for new product development
  • Highly competitive markets
  • Resizing and restructuring
  • New technologies

How well does this actually work?

  • Not very well! There are many studies that show problems with cross-functional project teams.
  • In one large study, researchers found that 75% of cross-functional teams weren’t all that functional.
  • They either did not have clear goals or, when they had them, they did not meet them.
  • And were unable to attain the returns expected by management.
  • Cross-functional new product teams had difficulty getting their products to market.
  • Innovation is lower with cross-functional teams.
  • Managers express frustration with the time and resource demands of functionally diverse teams.
  • Cross-functional teams often prove ineffective at capitalizing on the benefits of their informational diversity.

There is also difficulty in motivating members to work together effectively:

  • While groups benefit from informational diversity, members report the experience as frustrating and dissatisfying.
  • Work groups disagree about task content or how to do the task.
  • Groups with members of diverse educational majors have trouble defining how to proceed.
  • Where there is high informational diversity, team members often debate their different perceptions and options.
  • Conflict in a project team with high informational diversity is nearly inevitable.
  • Sources of conflict will vary according to the type of project and the stage of the project life cycle.

The following is a list of the top four techniques I’ve developed over 25 years of handling project teams composed of “firm-minded” experts in the hopes of developing a project’s outcomes. (Note that I didn’t do these things at the start; after many, many failures, I started to zero in on things that work.)

1. Instill a “sense of mission” in all who work on your projects—including yourself. As the story goes, during a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor sweeping the floor. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, my name is Jack. What do you do here?” The janitor responded: “Well, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

The janitor got it. He understood the vision and mission of the project—and that he played a role. Every day when the janitor came to work, he knew what he was doing counted toward a larger goal—the product of the project.

I’ve always felt the project manager must first understand the mission of their project and do their best to instill in each project team member what the janitor knew instinctively. When everyone understands the mission and vision of where they are trying to get to with all the efforts they are expending, it all becomes easier—it all makes sense. Things that don’t add to the mission don’t make sense.

Here are a few test questions to ask:

  1. Do you know what and you are trying to make happen and why? Can you give an “elevator speech” of what the product of your project is and why it’s important to your organization? If you as the PM don’t understand the mission, having a project team that understands it is very unlikely. At each decision point and at each meeting, you should internally refer to your mission concept and use it!
  2. Does the project team know what you are trying to make happen? You must communicate this—not just by saying it or by writing it on a big piece of paper. You must live and breathe it. Balance each decision, each meeting and each detail against the concept of what you and the team are trying to make happen. Concentrate on doing those activities that help push your project forward to the goal everyone has internalized.
  3. Does the project team know that what it is trying to do is important to everyone? The project’s mission must be important—otherwise, why do it? If it’s not important to your company or your organization, why are you spending money and effort on it? The importance of the project must also be communicated to the team. This is not to say a prioritized list of projects is handed out to everyone; it is to say that the project team knows the executives of the company believe the project is considered important—it’s funded, staffed and planned.
  4. Does everyone know they are playing a role in making it happen? Everyone working on the project must be made to realize they have an important role in the success (or failure) of the project. The janitor did! As the PM, you should reach out to everyone and communicate the importance of their contribution. Give them a vision of what the project will be when it’s done. Everyone has a role in making the project a success!

“That business purpose and business mission are so rarely given adequate thought is perhaps the most important cause of business frustration and failure.” — Peter Drucker, 1973

2. Establish a communications framework that works. Good communications among the project team and stakeholders are, simply put, vital to the success of a project. One in five projects is unsuccessful due to ineffective communications (2013 PMI Pulse of the Profession®: The High Cost of Low Performance in-depth report). This is not new information—it’s known that William Churchill used a very good communication technique during World War II. Project information posted on walls for all to see has since been called a “war room.”

I have personally used war rooms for complex projects with great success. While this is best if everyone is co-located, it can be remotely broadcast and discussed over various communications methods to ensure that everyone is in-sync. I’ve used it with several overseas locations on the same project at once. There are also computer-based methods that accomplish the same thing. The purpose is simple—to aid in communication to the entire team.

Meetings: All status meetings were held in the control room, where we were all surrounded by the status of each area and the entire project.

Control room rules: As a further assist in communications, we would jointly create rules for our meetings (develop your own!). This sounds corny, but the rules worked very well—and we would delight in calling out a rule violation during a meeting:

  1. Don’t stand markers on the end (they dry out).
  2. Neatness doesn’t count; accuracy does.
  3. If in doubt, write it on a big piece of paper.
  4. Bad news is good; good news is great! (We can fix it!)
  5. Truth is permitted (full disclosure).
  6. Always keep your charts up to date.
  7. Don’t roll over or give up on a topic.
  8. Read the charts!
  9. Stay focused.
  10. All meetings are held here—on time!

Control room benefits:

  • Building trust: Customers and stakeholders were welcome to attend our meetings and review the “status on the wall” at any time. The status was updated daily and always represented the best known or knowable information. This gave everyone a sense of confidence that we were doing our best to handle the unknowns and to chart the direction of the project—as a group.
  • Visual thinking: Many people can participate in a visually oriented plan that is carefully laid out on a large scale and can be updated, modified, erased and corrected.
  • Early warning signs: It’s quite easy to spot future problems during a status meeting when everyone is looking at the same document at the same time (including stakeholders).
  • Metrics easily shown: There are no mysteries about metrics. They are shown and obvious to everyone.
  • Trend data: It’s obvious. No sophisticated techniques are required. The group can see what is happening and what trends there are—and develop a plan to prevent future problems.

3. Focus on measures that matter. It’s the “time versus information dilemma”:

  • Team members should be cognizant of other parts of the project.
  • The project manager should know exactly how the project is doing.
  • A common problem: This is too much information to absorb for multiple disciplines and multiple projects.
  • There is not enough time to absorb the information and manage the projects.
  • The team doesn’t have time to learn how or what the other disciplines are doing and complete their own efforts.

We need to focus on leading versus lagging information. Not “We just got in trouble,” but “We’re about to get in trouble.” With the latter situation, you have a chance to deal with it.

The railroad crossing sign above is leading information—it allows the driver to slow down, stop, look and listen. Without it, the driver may plunge directly across the tracks and find out later (too late?) that there was a train on the tracks (lagging information!). Project managers must spend time focusing on leading information. “If we don’t change something, we’re going to be behind schedule” is more valuable than “30 days ago, we fell behind schedule” (lagging information).

Lagging indicators:

  • Tracking progress
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Defect rate
  • Scope change requests
  • Overdue tasks
  • Earned value

Leading indicators:

  • Not a guarantee that something will happen in the future
  • They indicate or suggest an increased chance that the future event may occur
    • Predictive
    • Performance goals
    • None are intrinsically a leading indicator
    • Leading Indicator = f (measure, time, interpretation)

4. Use peer and independent reviews. In standing review boards, a group of independent experts assess and evaluate project activities, advise projects and report their evaluations to the responsible organizations. They are responsible for conducting independent reviews of a project and providing objective, expert judgments. I’ve seen experts brought in from all over the world based upon the stage the project is in and the expert’s area of specialty. While some were often familiar faces, many were not. They all took their assignments very seriously.

The reviews were big events—and the project manager was in charge of arranging all status reports, presentation materials, discussion groups…whatever was needed to present and communicate the status of the project and future plans.

This could get to be quite a “charged” atmosphere, but the idea was not to punish the project manager or the project team. The idea was to help find areas of weakness in the project and help wherever possible. It was certainly intimidating at first. A hundred or so experts in every area listening closely to your concepts, plans and conclusions can be very scary. But that wasn’t the point! The point was to help. The point was that everyone wanted the project to succeed and we would all, as a big team, “pull out all the stops” to make sure it did succeed.

It was also a wonderful learning environment. It had captive experts reviewing your plans and ideas each month, with constructive feedback documented and given to the PM (you!) at the end of the meeting. It was intense project management training. The whole thing was about making sure you did the right things in the right order (and that you didn’t forget something).


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