If you were to go back through postings on this blog over the many years that it has been in existence, you would find that many of the tips and tactics covered fall under the category of “ways to improve the work environment so that workers can do their best”. To be able to manage an environment is a high-leverage technique for a project manager. You would do well to identify and build as many skills in this area as you can.
Here’s one now!
A recent study helps you understand in a more sophisticated way how to interact so that you create a more productive environment for your project team.
Before getting into the details of the study and pulling out useful tactics for a project manager, it’s useful to ask yourself: Is it better for me to appear as competent or to appear as warm? You might think it is best to be both. You might think it is more important for you to appear competent because your team does not have to like you, they just have to respect your authority and ability.
There are certainly different ways to look at this and, of course, different project managers have different personalities. But if your objective is to create a productive workplace, it is important to strike the right balance in a given situation, to understand what behaviors create the environment where workers will thrive. This study helps you do that - with a little help from my tactics provided after the description of the study.
The study was supported by Carnegie Mellon University and led by Shereen J. Chaudhry, who was trying to determine how and why people use apologizing, thanking, bragging and blaming. The study used clever scenarios with winners and losers and researchers monitored what happened on live chats after the winner was revealed. Sometimes the environment and outcome was fixed to really test researcher's predictions. (Hard to tell whether that would have been fun or just a little creepy.) Researchers interviewed participants afterwards to gather more information.
The outcome of the study confirmed predictions and made additional discoveries, including:
You can employ certain tactics based on this information, such as
Managing the amount of thanking, apologizing, bragging and blaming turns out to be a powerful tool in your tool set.
Before hearing the results of the study, would you have anticipated that appearing warm was more important than appearing competent in such social interactions? Would you have managed these kinds of interactions as recommended above?
Ah, the luxury of having an active task with an end date that is far away. You can concentrate on the tasks that are more urgent, making sure the team focuses on getting those done on time. There will be plenty of time to bring attention to that non-urgent task later.
That is, until the day when you think, "Is that task due already? Last check it was only 25% done and now there is only 10% time remaining!"
A long-duration task could be a task that takes many weeks to complete in a project where tasks typically last a week or two. There's been no mistake. It has been scheduled that way. A long design task, for example, to complete a single critical, difficult display for stakeholders. Or a long development task that takes the effort of many specialists who are working part time on the project, increasing the duration, but not the total effort. The key characteristic is that the task has been set a long duration by the team or owner (or you!) and now it is in progress in your project along with many other tasks that have due dates much sooner.
Consider this situation an opportunity, a way to exhibit your more advanced execution skills and maintain focus on active tasks with long durations. Build or strengthen this habit by using certain tactics and staying "above the fray" in your meetings
Stay Above the Fray . . . Inexperienced practitioners can wait too long to start checking on tasks that start weeks or months before they end. You can probably remember meetings where you allowed task reviews in meetings to be all about the urgent. That's what people want to talk about. But long-duration tasks have long durations for a reason. Effort needs to be expended the whole time. If inadequate effort is expended because of overconfidence, distractions or too much time allocated to urgent tasks, then the group completing the task will have lost the opportunity to do needed work.
Use Effective Task Management Tactics . . . Manage long-duration activities to set up task owners and yourself for success. If you wait until too close to the end of the task to start checking in, then you lose the opportunity to intervene.
A big part of keeping project execution on track is keeping long-duration tasks on track. The ability to get these type of tasks completed is a routinely useful skill that you can improve to increase your success and that of the teams who make up your project workforce. And if those who can possibly pay you the big bucks happen to notice, all the better.
You may have heard, like I have, that openness can build trust. But what kind of openness exactly? Certainly, you can share "too much information" about yourself. You can share the wrong things. That would not help build trust necessarily. It may make things worse, in fact. And there is confidential information you are provided about a project that you cannot share.
So, the question remains, exactly what do you share to build trust with openness as a project manager? Paul Zak, the expert who studies these factors in the workplace and whom I mentioned in the last post on job crafting, has guidance for us.
The technique of openness is how you share information broadly throughout your team. Your actions should enable the project workforce to see that you are providing needed information in a timely fashion without being manipulative. Here are some ways to do this in your weekly team meetings or daily agile meetings.
You don't have to be a project manager too long to hear things like
These comments are signs that workers do not have a good reason to trust you and the process, and if they do not have trust they will not be engaged or able to participate fully and give a little extra when needed. They are headed for burnout.
When you don't check for useful information you leave out opportunities to build trust, and then you do not have trust when you need it. So, create your standard agenda or meeting preparation checklist to include sections on
You can think of your own ideas that fit in your situation.
When project team members understand that they are getting a broad communication of information, they have more trust in the work environment where they work. If we get this right, he explains that trust improves engagement and engagement improves performance in your project.
What has been your experience in work cultures where there is more openness or where information is more restricted?
At some point, you have certainly thought about the importance of trust in project management. Did you happen to think of a lot of ideas to build trust? Probably not. This is a difficult topic.
Lucky for you, researcher Paul Zach looked carefully at workplace trust for 8 years and has developed 8 building blocks you can use to develop your own tactics to improve trust in your project. Some of these tactics have been discussed before elsewhere especially in this blog, but there are a couple that have not been discussed often related to project management. These will be the topics of this and the next post.
Facilitate Team to Craft Their Own Jobs
The first of Zak's building blocks to consider is called "Transfer." The term "transfer" for our purposes represents job crafting, which includes allowing people to use their own techniques to complete their work. That is, they determine how they meet the quality expected of their work.
This tactic is typically presented in training for managers and will always be easier for managers to implement. But that should not let you as a project manager miss out on a tactic to build trust.
Here are specific examples of how you can use the transfer/job crafting technique in your projects.
Look for other barriers to flexible work that you can eliminate or reduce.
Once you have team leads crafting more of their own work to fit their circumstances, you will have built more of your foundation for a trusting work environment. Do even more by helping them provide the same flexibility to their own workers.
Giving control like this is a key part of maintaining trust. Wresting control away from workers, by forcing restrictions and requirements for whatever reason, serves to break down trust. Be aware of obstacles to flexibility as well.
Next month, my post will be about openness, another one of Zak's building blocks that can be applied to your projects.
In the meantime, have you had success with job crafting?
Recently I wrote an article with a couple of ideas for tweaks to the waterfall method that makes it a little more responsive to business needs and possibly a little less stressful for the project team. One was to overlap phases and the other was to break up project scope into smaller bites and run smaller projects more often.
I mentioned a third option that would be covered later - and this is it!
First, though, let's deal with a basic preliminary question. What does this have to do with workforce management, the subject of this blog? Managing requirements well is a predecessor to managing the project workforce well. When requirements are clear, stable and complete, your project workforce deals with fewer problems in later phases. Your workforce is more productive generating fewer risks and issues.
With that known, consider now a common occurrence: A project is initiated and eventually a requirements document is created. Think about this a second. The project starts, meaning it is assigned a high-level scope, an initial budget and expected timeline, and only then are actual specific requirements defined. We all know that when details are defined, there are all kinds of discoveries. Some of these discoveries lead to additional expense, duration, dependencies, and resources. Some discoveries force the requirements definition itself to be extended unexpectedly.
What if requirements were handled a different way? What if they were managed mostly outside of the project itself? What would that tactic be called?
Keep Requirements in a Separate List to be Processed Continuously
Consider the situation of a web site that is used by customers. The customer service group and sales group that support the site are endlessly looking for improvements. They want one function faster, another function upgraded, a third function added. They have these needs all the time, not just when a project is in progress.
Why don't they keep a list on their own?
Once they have such a list, they can assign priorities to the items in the list. They can add impact ratings, where the improvements that will bring the business benefits will become more obvious. They can add an indicator to show whether the listed item is new as opposed to "mature" or "stable" (better understood, articulable and justifiable by groups keeping the list).
All this kind of information is their own decision. No project is needed to manage it. Even better, the groups who keep this list can filter on the mature/stable items, then choose high impact/large benefit items and use that as the basis for the business justification for a project.
The groups maintaining the list may not know the true cost of getting the work completed at this point. For example, they will not have contacted the technology group for sizing. But with a very precise and mature list, sizing will proceed quickly.
In the project, scope (based on the requirements selected from the overall list) is already in a near-complete state. Requirements gathering is much less risky as the business requirements documentation is built out quickly. Additional related requirements ("non-functional" for instance) can be added relatively quickly from control partners like legal, compliance, operational risk management.
Want to level up? Assume that the decision has been made as well to abandon large annual projects and to go with smaller continuing projects that have quarterly releases, as discussed in my article. Each project can take a subset of the requirements, basically taking the highest priority at the time, creating a continuing flow of the most needed functions being released.
Now that is managing requirements for better productivity!