| Situation: You are still trying to figure out what Twitter is good for.|
Much has been made of how Twitter has been used to circumvent Government censorship in Iran - letting us know what's really going on in places where journalists have no access. A lot of that is because:
1. Twitter can be completely anonymous and untraceable.
2. Twitter is so immediate and easy to use.
So, even under extreme pressure, anyone can feel comfortable commenting and reporting issues on Twitter.
Think about that for a second. How many times have you found out about project issues too late because of office politics or fear of reprisals? Wouldn't it have been great to have a suggestion box that people could trust because it resides outside of the organization?
What would happen if you set up a Twitter account and asked people to "direct (private) message" you with suggestions, comments, difficult issues, and just "things you should know about". Perhaps you could push people to do it at every status meeting. The comments would be completely anonymous and you could even have a longer private conversation through direct messages if required. You would have to make sure they didn't openly "Tweet" any private company info, but that shouldn't be a problem.
If Iranian dissidents feel comfortable risking jail by Tweeting, why wouldn't your team feel comfortable using it to make things more successful?
| Situation: You find yourself asking - What did we decide about that?|
Decisions made in a structured way often happen in meetings. They get captured in meeting notes and that's great. Decisions made in reaction to new situations pop up every day. We have a brief email exchange about them and we at least feel like we've made a decision. -- or maybe some of us do. In the end those exchanges just create more loose ends.
We recently talked to Chris Bright, from Zapproved about yet another simple, cool PM tool that addresses a critical issue - decision-making. I think his responses to my questions are enough to at least get you thinking about how you handle and document decisions.
Q. How do you see Zapproved being used within the context of projects? Is it used more for sign-offs or for every day decision-making?
Chris: We have users utilizing Zapproved for consensus building around big milestone approvals involving many participants on down to approval of routine, everyday decision-making between individuals. The feedback we get is that the app is helpful for keeping momentum in organizational processes and for tracking and recording tasks. Since a significant portion of any project is collaborating with others, Zapproved offers a solution that is easy to implement and that “sticks.”
For larger groups, Zapproved offers several advantages. As is typical, most decisions are being made via email. That presents problems because one decision can fill up inboxes with long email chains that can be difficult to drive to conclusion. Plus, some people do not participate for reasons of travel or to passively resist the group. Tech blogger Robert Scoble posited that the number of emails required to do something in email is equal to the number of participants squared. That feels about right to me!
Zapproved hosts the conversation in a single place online so everyone can see comments and feedback at one time and out in the open. If someone has not responded, it is clear that is the case. By bringing decisions into the daylight it puts pressure on laggards to not block the group and reduces interference of politics and personalities.
On more routine tasks of acknowledging status reports and procedural steps, scheduling meetings and calls, approving travel requests, new hires, and other decisions that are plentiful but tend to not get tracked well, our system puts them in a repository and associates them with explicit approvals. This can help keep things moving smoothly since it reduces organizational friction around procedural steps.
Q. Could you give us a couple specific examples (from your current organizational clients) of decisions that people manage within Zapproved?
Chris: I’ve provided a few examples below of how our users are utilizing the system:
Q. I could see people using Zapproved as a way to track action items that come out of status meetings. Do know of any best practices around that? How is Zapproved used in that situation?
Chris: Yes, I have spoken with a few people who use it for task management in the way you are describing. After a status meeting, the project manager sends task notifications to the appropriate people that scopes the task and provides a deadline. Once the person completes the task, they can “Approve” it to signal that state or “Deny” it if, for some reason, it was not done or no longer needed to be done.
Q. You talked a bit about how Zapproved changes the behavior of people whose it, versus those who use email threads to document decisions. Could you describe those differences in terms of approach, wording, and structure?
Chris: Yes, once people start using the system there are subtle shifts in behavior that managers find helpful. When someone is submitting a proposal they know that at the bottom of the message it says “Approve” and “Deny.” Email tends to have a casual tone so people are reluctant to write in an actionable way, i.e. citing outcomes and deadlines, because it comes across as awkward. We see emails ending with phrases like “let me know what you think” and other casual, polite words. Not the best approach when driving something to closure.
In Zapproved the context of the system compels users to write in an actionable way. That simple shift helps enormously because it drives explicit statements such as “I am seeking your approval on this item.” As a manager, the amount of energy required to respond is reduced dramatically. We hear time and time again of how group productivity increases by providing a simple framework for process in teams.
Q. Which types of decisions are best left out of Zapproved?
Chris: Most decisions adapt well in Zapproved especially when transparency and an audit trail are key. Even though approvals in Zapproved are legally binding, one may want to check with an attorney before using it as the final sign-off on a multi-million contract. We are working on e-signatures that would add higher levels of redundancy on identity, so we hope that we will be able to fulfill even that role in the future!
Q. How do you deal with decision-tree sorts of situations where decisions are linked to one another?
Chris: At this time, that is an ad hoc situation that teams organize as needed. One of our users has built an e-procurement system on Zapproved with hierarchical workflows and it works well. It saves on paper and the alternative of an expensive, complex tool would have absorbed much more energy and resources. However, we are planning to build that functionality into Zapproved in a way that is easy and intuitive to implement.
Q. How do you filter out the smaller decisions from the larger ones? Can you tag them with project or category names?
Chris: Every proposal has a “Project” field that can be defined by the user. Once a person has entered text in that field, it is stored and is available in a drop-down menu for any future proposals. This helps group and track decisions around a single project (i.e. “NASA Hydrogen Propellant Proposal”), or can also substitute for flagging more routine processes such as “Vacation Requests.” It is an easy way to put proposals in various buckets that makes sense for a team.
Q. What’s at the top of the list for future enhancements?
Chris: Our development paths are focused on adding functionality and increasing integration. As I mentioned, we are working on creating decision-tree workflows, embedded forms and even e-signatures. Looking at integration, we see Zapproved as a strong complement to other tools. Last month we introduced an add-in for Outlook and we want to expand access to Zapproved through other business applications as well as mobile platforms.
| Situation: You think social networking might work within your business. |
I recently spoke with Chris Hall, a Project Manager and a key player in Humana's Social Media Chamber of Commerce - exploring new ways that the company's employees can interact productively with each other and the outside world. If you want to find out more about Chris, I hear he's absolutely Halllcious on Twitter.
Q. You’ve recently started a group within Humana, exploring the use of Social Networking tools in the workplace. Could you give us some specifics about the effort? (lines of business involved, how it started, how many people at what level, executive support, etc.)
A. Definitely. The idea behind Humana’s Social Media Chamber of Commerce came about because we are trying to understand what social media means for our 26,000 person company. The prevailing thought right now is that no one organization will own "Social Media" for all of Humana. We really don’t want to create a bottleneck for any kind of communication approval process because social technologies online are real-time in nature.
We’ve realized that our company is made up of individual departments with separate customers/demographics, individual social media needs, and budgets and we want to use the Chamber of Commerce as an extension of the Web 2.0 world that we all live in today.
The Chamber is made up of Directors from around the company and the paradigm shift we’re trying to create is: the need to share and exchange best practices will replace the need to control. It’s a lofty ideal, but one worth striving for nonetheless. After sitting through the first two meetings, I think that we're on the right track. There has been a genuine exchange of ideas. Viewpoints are clarified and understood with the high points going out on Twitter. People actually smile. It’s great!
Q. Regarding the use of Twitter as a tool to take and disseminate meeting notes, you talk about less being more. Could you expand on that?
A. Sure thing. Over the past eight years I learned how to take very detailed meeting minutes. Some things definitely need to be flushed out in detail, but I feel that in most meetings, you really only have one to three big things that everyone needs to understand and focus on…
Using a micro-blogging service, like Twitter or Yammer, to take down notes during a meeting really forces a person to get down to the gist of the message, and that serves as a filtration process. When everyone in the room is able to do this, and the information all rolls up into one place, then you can start to see keyword trends from the meeting.
So the idea is that everyone is taking notes, in the form of 140 character thoughts, that everyone else can see and then at the end of the meeting everyone’s notes are pumped into something like Wordle and a word cloud is generated so that everyone can visualize the keywords that were mentioned the most in the meeting.
I’m still experimenting with this concept, but I think it’s a cool new way to look at a boring topic like meeting notes. ?
Q. What has the reaction to your group’s efforts been inside the organization?
A. Bewildered enthusiasm. I work in Humana’s Innovation Center and we’re just kind of doing these things, and figuring it out as we go… which is exciting. There’s some element of “danger” associated with business and the social web that has an allure to it for most people.
We just had a web and new media conference where everybody in the company who has a web presence got in a big room to talk about what they’d been doing, and our group is definitely on the cutting edge, mainly because we’re all on Twitter.
What I think is really cool though is the fact that we have people outside of our company who have become fans of what we’re doing. We created the hashtag #hcoc, which stands for Humana’s Chamber of Commerce and serves as the public location of all the information we’re sharing from these meetings. The fact that people from outside our company walls are there encouraging us to keep moving forward with it is really awesome.
Humana is just another evil health insurance company in a lot of people’s minds. We would like to change that perception and show that we want to be part of a solution to our country’s health crisis. Opening up and sharing seems to be a catalyst for that type of change.
Q. What are the biggest challenges to starting a group like this? Who is opposed and why?
A. I think that we’ve been very fortunate to have leaders in the company who accept the importance of social technologies, and challenge us to find ways to integrate them into our daily work lives. If you don’t have buy-in from the top in your organization, then you’re just spitting into the wind.
The tough part at my level is figuring out what’s out there and then figuring out the so what about it. Understanding the how does this make my life or the consumer’s life easier, better faster, more motivated, and then moving forward with something that could easily blow up in my face is a constant challenge.
Q. What sort of person typically wants to be involved in this group? What sort of person doesn’t?
A. I would say that you have to like the internet in general, while being open to new experiences. It’s a definite mind-set, but that doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive. Anybody who wants to learn and share can be in…
Q. Do you publicize the group within Humana? Are you trying to expand it in any way, or is it just a close knit group of like minded folks?
A. We are in the process of developing requirements for a digital “Commons” area that everyone in the company will have access to learn and share. It’s looking like Microsoft SharePoint will more than likely be the tool of choice for our internal needs in that department.
Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned so far?
A. I think that the most important take-away so far, is that people care. It’s refreshing to be involved with a group of people who are all enthusiastic about the mountain that we have to climb together. That’s not hyperbole, either. It’s also exciting that some people from outside our company have chosen to come along for the ride.
The momentum that we are building will help us through the challenges that we are up against. And let me tell you, we have a lot of challenges ahead… Access and transparency isn’t a “do it over a weekend” kind of challenge. We have a long road ahead.
Q. What’s next after Twitter? How do you prioritize the tools you are exploring and why do you do it that way?
A. We did the meeting tweeting sort of on a whim… We think that the results were interesting and that it was cool that other people are into it. Whether it remains our tool of preference is yet to be determined. We have internal access issues with Twitter (our firewall forces us to use our cell phones to tweet) so it may not be our final solution in the end. However, the concept of micro-blogging is catching on…
I’m really interested in feeds. The thought of building the reporting into the work is something that I can get fired up about. I personally loathe having to make and manage a project plan and then make summary slides in PowerPoint. Its double work and totally unnecessary.
I think that RSS is the answer but have to wrap my head around how everything fits together with our requirements. That being said, there isn’t really a prioritization process around finding the individual tools we can use. We’re looking holistically at the business of conducting business better using social technologies. It’s good times. ?
| Situation: You're Tweet-curious.|
How many times have you heard that project management is all about communication? Communicating with your team is important, but so is communication with the outside world. The latter is one of the reasons you are on gantthead. Both are reasons you should at least become familiar with Twitter.
Let me begin by saying I’ve been on Twitter for almost two years, tweeting once until last week. I never really got it until I got a few direct messages that dragged me into really trying it out. Three benefits really struck me as important. I think they could be important to most PMs who care about doing a good job AND improving their knowledge of the field.
Real Large-Scale Collaboration
Have you ever been responsible for a large-scale system rollout? Often there are points where you present information to a large audience and only a small percentage of people with questions ask them. In the end you have questions from 5% of the people who actually have issues with what you are doing. Imagine what would happen if you got everything out in a non-confrontational and documented way with very little overhead or cost. Twitter could help you do that.
How important is “sounding smart” (or being smarter) to you?
You would be surprised at how inspirational a twitter stream of random thoughts and links on PM can be. It’s hard not to spend 10 minutes running through a twitter search of something you are interested in --- say project management and not find something that interests you or sparks your imagination. Compare that to 10 minutes of TV at night or 10 minutes of waiting in line someplace.
How important is being connected to you?
If you want to connect to business people in general, go to linkedin. If you want to connect to other PMs, do that on gantthead. If you want to connect to people from a variety of disciplines, based on your interests, Twitter is not a bad place to do it. Again, start by searching on your favorite terms. Last night, I ended up having a brief email exchange with one of the guys on NBCs “Heroes”. No big deal, but not likely to happen without Twitter. How many PM folks do you network with? Wouldn't it be great if you knew more about them - creating easier ways to start conversation and build a closer relationship? (see video below)
These are just a few thoughts on the subject. It’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not for those who have a very modest interest in networking. I just thought it would be useful to offer a couple quick ways to try it out. If you do try it, please let me know how it turned out. If you would like to follow me, I'm DaveG253.
| Situation: You think that constant communication may make your organization more effective.|
At least ten times over the past month I've been asked, "Does gantthead offer the equivalent of Twitter?" To which I've responded "no" repeatedly. For most people, Twitter is one of those things that you either get and love or think is completely pointless. I have a Twitter account that I've not used in a year, but every week more people "follow" me on it.
For those of you who don't know what Twitter is - it's a "micro blogging" tool. This means that people with accounts are constantly texting short blurbs about what they are doing in to the system. They are also receiving "Tweets" from those who they are following. It's sort of a "Everybody knows what everyone else is doing" sort of thing. In theory, there might be some utility in this sort of thing within the context of your work environment. It could answer questions like: What does Joe do all day? or Is Sarah is finishing up that report? After a long hot day of "tweeting" it could also make you a touch more reflective about how you spend your own time. Looking at it as a running logbook or diary kind of makes you think about whether you should have spent an hour chatting in Mark's office or 15 minutes posting to your blog --- oh enough about me.
Well at least one tool vendor believes that microblogging is in your future. Yammer is Twitter for corporate types. Here's how they describe their tool.
Yammer is a tool for making your organization more productive through the exchange of short frequent answers to one simple question: "What are you working on?"
You can use Yammer to: