Project Management

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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RPA, Organizational Change and Managing the Skills Gap

Leading Questions with Focus on Project Team

Stay Confident for Awkward Communications

Leading by Listening (Part 2)

Leading by Listening (Part 1)

RPA, Organizational Change and Managing the Skills Gap

This is the fourth post in a series related to Robotic Process Automation* (RPA) and Organizational Change Management. The purpose of the series is to provide support for project managers during this age of digitalization. You can filter posts in this blog to find all related to "RPA".

Do you feel it? We are in the age of digitalization. Manual processes are being automated at an ever faster rate. So you, as a project manager, should be ready to manage automation projects. To be ready, you need to know something about how the technologies work and something about how the organization adapts to the changes brought about by the automation.

One of the technologies used to automate work is robotic process automation, a relatively simple technology that allows automation of repetitive, rule-based, easily defined manual steps in a matter of days. A developer programs a software robot to follow the steps a human would make to move files, fill out online forms, write standard reports from existing data in multiple applications, and more.

Organizational leaders tend to see repetitive, simple tasks as low value and so do workers who do those tasks. Everyone would rather be doing direct customer service or other tasks that are high-value for the organization, saving money, increasing revenue or building customer delight. Yet a project manager coming in with the ability to make fast changes in multiple areas still may not be successful - without a broad knowledge of organizational change management.

One of the success criteria for effective organizational change management is that workers and their leaders are provided the new skills that are necessary once the automation is established. This usually entails

  • What steps are being replaced and will not have to be completed
  • How to manage the workload that remains
  • How to identify and handle exceptional cases that the automation cannot complete
  • How to find and interpret periodic reports that the automation creates  to summarize
  • How to identify and report when the automation is not functioning or not functioning properly
  • How to maintain the automation and request updates/improvements.

When workers do not have the necessary skills, when they conclude that they are not going to be trained or prepared properly, they resist the organizational change. Leaders are the same way. If they do not see that they will be able to manage properly once the automations are in place, they will resist. Resistance to organizational change is one way otherwise impressive improvement efforts fail. Even though there is a strong business case, even though the organization would advance in the marketplace, organizational change will fail if there is resistance on the part of workers, stakeholders or even leaders of the workers.

Here are examples of how resistance can kill an organizational change management effort:

  • Workers make it difficult to transition to having the automation take over
  • Stakeholders, not confident that the change can be executed properly, resist actual implementation of the automation
  • Workers complain to leaders that the automation does not appear ready or the organization does not appear ready to make the change delaying implementation of the automation

Example:  Automated Archivist

Take for example the situation where you are a project manager for an RPA project that is automating a manual process for archiving files for the enterprise that will be used for financial recordkeeping. The process entails moving files from certain shared spaces to a secure archive, allowing for data collection and analysis. The team that does this currently does not like the low value work and would rather spend time on data collection which is highly valuable in their "big data" initiative. The business case also listed reduced risk from human error in the archiving process.

But you do not manage the skills gap properly and then your project bogs down.

  • You find out that workers tell their supervisor that they are not sure this can work. The automation appears to "take over" and not let them do their data collection as usual.
  • Managers raise issues and require additional meetings to address how they will know that the files are archived properly, which they are responsible for.
  • Finance stakeholders want a separate meeting to address their fears that financial records could be mismanaged and no one would know about it. You find out that this fear has been communicated to high levels.

That could get ugly. To avoid this resistance, you have to plan in the beginning to address the skills gap. You must put in place the communications and meetings necessary for workers, leaders and stakeholders. You must make time in the schedule for the training or other activities for the organization to adapt to the change.

So for your stakeholder management plan, add in the groups involved, including the workers, their immediate supervisors, other leaders and stakeholders. Specify what communications are expected. You should have early communications to describe the general scope of the effort, but go further. Include deliverables, such as a "user guide" for the workers and supervisors and stakeholders who will be looking at reports generated by the automation.

And for your schedule, block out time for "organizational change activities" that should be completed before you put the automation into production. That way it will be easier to organize everyone involved to be ready on time.

That wasn't so hard. Once you know more about Organization Change Management, the more you can use your existing tools in a way that will make your automation project successful. Remember, there is more on OCM and RPA in this blog. Filter on RPA. And happy automating!

 

* Robotic Process Automation:  Configuring a software robot, using one of the relatively new tools available, to complete a certain part of a work process formerly completed by humans. RPA is not Artificial Intelligence, but simply a way of automating the execution of well-defined business rules. Projects are short and bring quick benefits to the organization.

Posted on: January 20, 2021 11:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Leading Questions with Focus on Project Team

What  is the difference between management and leadership? Alert reader Luis Branco suggested this question in a comment to an article I wrote and it is a good question to ponder. In my experience there is less a binary definition than a continuum. On one extreme there is being a beacon for people to follow as they struggle through a dark,  uncertain period to get to a brighter future. On the other extreme is driving efficient task management.

In this post and my previous article  on "leading questions", I focus more on the leadership side for common situations in the PM world where skills should be built up. It may be a while before you are able to be an executive communicator, but you do have opportunities now to rise above common project management task wrangling and do leadership-side preparation and communications. If you are a newer project manager, this type of leadership skill can help you move into more complex projects and be recognized as a more advanced project manager. Many of us have done the same. If you have more experience, but need more focus to improve, there are tactics below to help.

Know Your Targets:  Project Team

For your leadership-side communications to your project team members,  you need to help them prepare for the future (medium-term to long-term), to understand the environment in which they work, and to see the larger context of their efforts. This context is beyond managing to a task list, no matter how sophisticated it is. Note also how this communication is parallel to an executive providing the context of the marketplace and "direction" for the organization.

Ask yourself these "leading questions". Add more questions for your situation. Not all questions are relevant to all situations, but you should have at the ready a broad list to make sure you  to stay ahead of emerging problems with your communications and actions.

  1. Work Environment . . . Is there a work environment situation that may effect your team's ability to complete work? Is there a business context documented in the business case that affects how to surmount obstacles? Are stakeholders involved in conflicting work? Has the sponsor apprised of a conflicting business initiative? Is there a big change required by the team, such as a new methodology like agile, a brand new team or a new type of complex project? How do tactics for succeeding at the next phase follow new guidance or priorities from the organization or enterprise?
  2. Risks/Issues /Challenges . . . What are the new risks or issues to be addressed? Has the project team been involved in looking for risks? What did the project team identify? Who is affected? How must they be involved? How best to communicate to the effected?
  3. Preparation for Resolution . . . What are the next decisions to be made so that the project team can progress? What information is needed? What type of session is needed to bring participants to agreement? How is the project team best involved in preparation for resolution? How do any resolution decisions need to be communicated? Who gets the communication? When are the next meetings where communications must be made? Who needs to attend? What are their interests? How can these interests be addressed in preparation for the meeting? What information needs to be collected to resolve the issue(s)? What questions need to be asked at the meeting? How does resolution need to fit in with the business case?
  4. For any of the above categories, what needs to be said to motivate the project team to be successful? How do you say it? When do you say it (at what meeting)? What can you say to help them identify specific risks in this area?

Now apply the questioning technique to a particular example:

Situation: Your project is approaching the design phase. You ask leading questions of yourself (#1 and #2)  and determine that there is a risk from some key stakeholders not receiving recent leadership communication of organizational priority on customer-centric design. Alternately, if they did receive the recent communication, they may not agree with the ramifications. As a consequence, these stakeholders may not make themselves available for the amount of time needed in work sessions to understand the design and give feedback to improve its effectiveness with customers.

Think ahead: 

  • Prepare messages to communicate need for stakeholder availability based on organizational leadership initiatives.
  • Determine which communication vehicles should be used.
  • Determine which meetings should be used to communicate this message and obtain feedback.
  • Involve your project team to come up with ideas to meet this challenge. For example, the project team should come up with ideas to communicate through a variety of methods the need for availability in design work sessions. The team can also identify stakeholders who are pushing back on new design priorities or who have not received leadership communications about customer-centric design.

Notice how these tactics, built by asking leading questions, keep you ahead of the risks and engaging your project workforce to manage the situation in a more sophisticated manner. If you were only focused on project task management, you would run the risk of not starting to address the problem until much later and in a much less-effective reactive manner. Don't be that project manager.

Posted on: November 30, 2020 05:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Stay Confident for Awkward Communications

The project manager's life often includes facing awkward situations. Have you been impressed by leaders who maintain a confident demeanor through difficult business communications? Like those communicators, you can be a better project manager by being prepared for awkward communications with your project team, stakeholders or sponsor.

In this post, you'll learn about a couple of awkward situations and how to handle them. First, you'll see how to handle the situation where you need to hide your disagreement with a message that you are conveying. The second situation is where the message you are relaying is late and you need to make the best of that situation.

Hiding Your Disagreement

How It Gets Awkward:  Consider, for example, that you are given the task is to convey to your project team, stakeholders  a message that has come down from the leadership chain (perhaps through your sponsor) and you don't agree with it. The message may have to do with resource changes in your project or a business priority change or something similar. For example, you may have to communicate that certain resources will be shifted to another higher priority project forcing unclear adjustments to be made by all involved.

How to Remain Confident:  Despite what you want to say, it is rarely appropriate for you to express your opinion in these matters. Deliver the message in a steady, professional, factual way. But also, express empathy when you hear reactions from your audience. You can acknowledge their frustration, disappointment and other emotions while still remaining confident.

Note:  This empathy skill has become highly desirable as well as critical to success for project managers and I'm doing my best in my articles and posts to make sure that you recognize when and how to use it.

When Your Message is Late

How It Gets Awkward: There are several reasons why you might be conveying a message that would be considered late. It could be information that took longer to obtain than you forecast to your team. It could be a decision that took a long time to come from leadership that significantly impacts your stakeholders and project team.

Consider the case where your task is to communicate out that a certain project decision has been made and that you previously told sponsor and stakeholders that the decision would be made two weeks prior. It was not made by the date you forecast for whatever reason, and you know that the delay will cause your sponsor and stakeholders difficulty and frustration. (Yikes!)

How to Remain Confident When It's Not Your Fault: On first glance, it appears you can simply say or imply that others were at fault. But that builds distrust in other groups, leadership or the business process. There is no good reason for you to make a judgement here. Stay confident by saying you just got the message and are relaying it immediately. If you hear complaints about the delay, show empathy. And if someone asks why there was such a delay, you probably are not sure, so say so. Focus on the message. And empathy.

How to Remain Confident When It Is Your Fault: It's definitely more difficult to remain confident in this case. You can make the best out of this situation if you apologize and own up to the responsibility. While this is a short-term problem for your reputation, when you own up to the error you will be more trusted in the future. For example, if the perceived delay was only because of your optimistic forecast of how long it would take to get the decision, then "you'll know better next time because you know that is important to your partners". If you hear complaints, show empathy. Next, move the conversation to the actual message.

In the case where the business decision was late, whether or not the delay was your fault, the message is going to force adjustment by your audience which will likely result in a second wave of complaints or frustration. Your tendency may be to respond firmly to complaints with your judgements and action planning in order to maintain control, but this can lead you down a troublesome path. Instead, realize this communication session is likely not designed to solve all problems and to determine all ramifications of the decision. You can defer until later the actual working sessions for everyone to figure out what to do.

So the key points here are to stay confident by preparing in advance for awkward communications:

  • Avoid volunteering your judgements as to whether you agree with leadership messages or decisions
  • Show empathy when your target audience responds and keep showing it
  • Focus on the message and its implications, but defer planning specific project adjustments until cooler heads prevail

You can use these points as guides during other examples of awkward communications as well. 

Posted on: August 20, 2020 11:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Leading by Listening (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1, here are more tactics for being a leader without moving a muscle, just listening. This is active, focused listening, though. You are seeking two pieces of information critical in any widespread disruption: useful information about your project status and state of mind of your team members. With these two pieces of information you will be able to manage your project and appropriately show empathy so that each team member will feel more comfortable with the situation, even in chaotic circumstances. 

Focus on Recognition

When there is some type of global event that disrupts your project, it is difficult for your team members to get routine work done in a routine way. As you listen, look for opportunities to increase the positivity of the work environment by making sure you recognize work that has been completed.

  • Explicitly thank the team member for things that you might not normally recognize people for. Be sensitive that even a basic task being completed could have taken heroic efforts on the part of that individual or team.
  • Talk to the team members about what was done to complete a task so that you can get the full story. Then you can relay the story to the rest of the team. This reinforces the fact that you understand that it is difficult to get work done and everyone can enjoy the story and relate to it. It also gives you detailed information you need for monitoring and controlling.
  • Set the tone for continued recognition among members of the team. Recognition might be one of the very few positive areas that people experience in any typical day during a major disruptive event.

Build Confidence

As you ask questions to determine state of mind, you will likely identify opportunities to build the confidence of team member who may be questioning whether they can complete work in such a difficult work environment. You want team members to understand that they can apply their judgment where they have expertise to get work done but may simply need help to manage through the unusual circumstances resulting from the disruption. A couple of examples:

  • Their expertise may be in Design, but their obstacle is that their interactions with the internal client representative has suddenly become uneven, good participation followed by long periods of silence.
  • Their expertise may be in Testing. But an obstacle may have arisen with the behavior of the target application testing environment which is not updated as usual or stable any more.

You can build confidence by explaining that team members do not have to be anxious over the constant new obstacles but can use guidance from you and others to understand the new circumstances creating the obstacles. In turn, team members can better identify and communicate obstacles that are keeping them from progressing. Additional benefit for you:  This will improve the information you get about work progress, risks, and issues even during a major disruption.

Loosen Control

While listening to team members, look for signs that you may need to "loosen the reins" of controls on individuals in project work. That is, if disruption creates more difficulty for teams to get work done, there are more obstacles and less progress. Less progress means less to report in a standard reporting period. Less reporting means less need for routine monitoring.

  • Reduce the rate of meetings. For example, prior to a routine team meeting, you can ask if there are updates. If not, cancel the meeting. This will eliminate the awkward meeting where many participants must report “no progress” which under normal circumstances in bad, but in the case of widespread disruption, is common. This is another way to show empathy. It also leaves you more time to talk to individuals about their state of mind.
  • Ask if it would help to allow team members make more decisions in the field, without necessarily having to coordinate as much with you as usual. If the organization is in flux, team members, being "closer to the obstacle" may know better the specifics of the unique obstacle's causes and be better situated to resolve it.
  • Log obstacles as risks. Does reducing meetings or giving teams leeway sound risky? If so, manage it as a risk. For instance, you can log a risk for the difficulty in completing tasks on time due to the widespread disruption effects on stakeholder participation or test environment stability.

Conclusion & More Help

Being a good listener is being a good leader. In a time of global disruption, a good leader having a firm grasp on his/her project, knowing the state of mind of team members, and showing empathy is rare and needed. With these listening skills you will be able to show yourself as a valuable member of the organization and improve your career prospects. Be sure to document these successes for future positions applications.

Here are articles I have written related to change interactions:

https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/295709/Communication-Before-Big-Project-Change--Part-1-

https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/297019/Communication-Before-Big-Project-Change--Part-2-

https://www.projectmanagement.com/articles/263095/Control-Techniques-for-the-Workforce--Dealing-With-The-Unsaid-

 

Posted on: June 29, 2020 04:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Leading by Listening (Part 1)

How are you doing? We are weeks into a wave of global lockdowns. You might be feeling anxious and frustrated while you work – or cannot work. Imagine what your project team is feeling. No, really, imagine what they are feeling. This will help you become a better leader in the most difficult of circumstances you will ever face. Read on to see how.

In an article which will be published on projectmanagement.com soon, I explain how to generate effective conversations with the right questions. (Once published, I will link it here.) In this post, this concept will be taken further - into the conversation itself. When the most difficult and disruptive situations occur, you must be able to interact effectively with project team members. Right now is one of those times. These techniques will allow you to emerge as a better leader in those conversations.

 

Your Two Objectives in a Worst-Case Scenario

You now have two objectives. One is to collect useful information for your project, information like whether a project team member currently has the technology available to complete his/her tasks. The second objective, the one more related to leadership, is to find out their state of mind.

 

The Importance of Being Empathetic

Don't be concerned if being empathetic is not your strong suit. In a massive global event, you and the person you are conversing with are experiencing a similar situation. Certainly there are some geographies, some countries, that are being hit much harder. And it is undeniable that some areas are suffering much more from restrictions forced by the global pandemic. But there is common ground! You will be able to begin conversations which include work situations, family situations and health situations. You will be able to determine what your team members are experiencing in an environment that has never been experienced before. They will feel the need to talk about it.

 

Listening Means Waiting

When you go into these calls, you will have effective questions to elicit conversation. What you do then is listen. One good tip to make sure you're listening properly is to wait at least three to five seconds, perhaps even more, before you say anything. Let the silence extend! Remember, in a case of global disruption, situations can be fraught, desperate, dire. When they are, responses may be slow, but you need to know, so wait.

 

Listen Without Judgement

Even though you believe it, avoid the bad habit of responding with "I know how you feel." You see this conversation play out constantly in movies and on TV. The reaction is generally, "No you don't!", which can happen to you when you make this judgement, so don't ever do it. It is a bad response and unnecessary.

Remember, your objective is to determine their state of mind. You want to get an idea of their frustration, anxiety, fear, whatever. If you can put a word to it, you can understand enough about what they are going through. In any situation that has to do with a global event or a major world disruption, you may have project team members in the depths of despair facing tremendous obstacles or at the heights of elation after surmounting obstacles.

If you are not be good in these difficult, fraught conversations, you can prepare to show you are empathetic by having “framed” responses in your mind. For example:

  • That must have been frustrating
  • You must be anxious at not knowing anything
  • Sounds like you went through a scary time
  • You must be happy to not have that problem any more

Notice how each one of these responses carefully puts a description on what the other person is experiencing. That shows you received the message and is comforting for the team member.

 

Avoid "Action Statements" Generally

Being a good listener does not mean that you have to act on anything. In fact, focusing your response on actions rather than empathy typically takes away from the benefits of empathy and interferes with your ability to determine state of mind.

 

Instead, Suggest Actions Via Questions

Here are some examples of where you would be an effective listener and leader by asking questions related to state of mind:

  • Do you need time off to deal with the health of your child?
  • Do you need time off to calm yourself?
  • Do you need to know when the project will be re-starting or what the business plans are?
  • Do you need help to shift to a different location to work?
  • What do you need now most of all?

These are just examples of where you can make it easier for the project team member while making the individual more comfortable or less anxious. Those are actions of a good leader.

 

In Part 2, more techniques will be described to become a better leader this way along with links to related articles.

Posted on: May 20, 2020 08:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)
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