Eye on the Workforce

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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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Turning Stress Into Success

Why Project Stress Can Be Positive

Generations & Work Ethic

The "Hidden" Effort You Should Really Manage Better

Be Ready for Power Dynamics in Tollgates, Major Issue Escalation

Turning Stress Into Success

Teams are more successful dealing with stress when they have a shared purpose. That was the conclusion reached by studies and reported in my last post. So the question remaining is: How can this information be translated into success tactics for you as a project manager? You have to continuously foster a particular line of communication related to challenges. Here are tactics you can use:

From the beginning of the project, promote its business benefits. The shared purpose will be to complete the project so those benefits are realized.

  • Don't just focus on the deliverables in your communications. Communicate key points from the project charter or equivalent document.
  • Promote who will appreciate the benefits:  executives, user groups, stakeholders, customers.
  • Put a number on the amount of users and financial improvements. Communicate these data points early and often to enable the project workforce to rally around these as a shared, higher purpose.

When hiring workers, start building a high-performance team by selecting people who see project obstacles and challenges as opportunities.

Later in the project, as obstacles appear and work teams are put under stress, remind the team that the benefits depend on successfully completing the project together.

  • Be focused on quality of deliverables, but keep everyone mindful of the higher purpose, the benefits of the project.

Discuss the challenges the project team is facing. Bring the conversation around to what the project team can do to meet the challenge. Determine how to work together to meet challenges, surmount obstacles and reduce stress. For example:

  • Be better at handing-off work from one team to another
  • Create a vacation schedule to help team members work together better
  • Adjust standard meeting times to better accommodate one group so that the entire project benefits
  • Improve quality of completed deliverables so that the team who receives it can also do better work
  • Communicate a controversial risk to the schedule that affects the entire team
  • Work together across functional (work) teams to resolve an issue
  • Attend a meeting together as a cohesive project team to deal with a challenge

Do not mistakenly communicate an attitude that appears you want to avoid stress during the project. And don't imply that stress is something individuals will have endure on their own. This does not work. The team must expect to work to meet challenges together, and that will reduce stress overall.

Set up new deliverables like the requirements document as a key part of getting business benefits. Make sure the deliverables mention or link back to the business benefits desired. This not only good practice but helps to link team members together throughout the project.

If key points from the project charter change at any time, use that as a trigger to update the project team on adjustments to the shared purpose.

At the end of the project, as part of Closing, communicate to everyone who participated  that the benefits will be achieved because of their participation to complete. This will cement in their minds that working together as a team is superior to other methods. And you will be remembered as the project manager who runs projects this way.

Notice how all these tactics lead to regular discussions about obstacles and challenges. Build up a habit to think in this way. Project managers regularly talk about risks and issues, so this is not a foreign concept. The trick is to communicate that project challenges are not stressful threats, but opportunities for the team to succeed.

Posted on: November 27, 2016 09:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why Project Stress Can Be Positive

Have a stressful project work environment? Worried that the stress is putting the team in conflict, making the team  less productive? Do you see friction among the team members or individuals suffering stress?
Do you know how to respond as a project manager?

Stress can lead to team failure, but it does not have to do so. At least not according to  a happiness researcher.

Now you are probably thinking:  Happiness, you say? What does project management have to do with happiness? Doesn't being in a project mean constantly feeling the walls closing in from your "aggressive" schedule, tight budget, changing requirements and scarce resources?

You could not be blamed for thinking that way.

By the way happiness research is a thing. Check out this TED talk by Shawn Achor, the Harvard (!) happiness researcher whose work is behind this post. We should all probably be spending more time thinking about it than we do. Maybe this is a good place to start.

Achor studied NFL teams and elite military units, looking at situations where some teams perform at a high-level in high-pressure situations and other teams fail. A key success factor was the way teams handled stress. That sounds like something that project managers need to understand then, doesn't it?

There are two parts to being successful here. First, you have to understand that successful teams need a common purpose. This has been established and reported in this blog previously. Achor clarified the second part: that successful teams use their common purpose to better manage stress.

In an article, Achor describes one CEO who changes stressful situations (for example significant barriers and constraints) into meaningful group challenge. NFL winning teams were able to overcome tremendous competition by overcoming the challenges together. Elite military units trained by stamping out a feeling of individual stress, redirecting that feeling to the team for solution.

Managed in this way, stress actually helped bond team members to their organizations. For readers of Eye on the Workforce, you should recognize this as employee engagement, the powerful cultural factor that creates a workforce that is committed and driven.

There has never been a time with more constraints for project managers and their teams. The best project managers will know how to

  • select the best people who will be able to deal with stress
  • manage the team to create a better way to deal with stress and
  • close out a project so that everyone will understand that they have succeeded.

In this way, you will build a reputation for being an effective leader and have more successful projects.

In my next post, I'll continue with this concept, listing specific tactics useful for project managers. In the meantime, check out the links and post your own ideas and thoughts....and be happy. 

Posted on: November 20, 2016 10:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

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 (2)

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)
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