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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Getting Those Approvals

Planning Around Scarce Expertise (RPA & OCM)

Beware Haloes & Courtesy Copies

Communicating the Vision (RPA & OCM)

Communicate the Schedule Early (RPA & OCM)

Two Global Facilitation Techniques

This month we are looking at Global PM on ProjectManagement.com. Among the potential problems experienced when managing teams that are based on different continents is simply being successful at facilitating meetings.

You may not even see the problems during the meeting. Yet the meeting ends, everyone seems to agree and when it comes for tasks to be completed, or deliverables being delivered, there are problems. They seem to come out of nowhere, or everywhere. You follow your facilitation best practices, but they do not give you the same results as when you deal with teams that are co-located with you.

 There are many reasons for this (in fact, I have many articles and blog posts on this site dealing with cultural and other differences between experienced and well-meaning co-workers), so what you need are techniques you can use to help make sure there no surprises.

 

Wait 3 to 5 seconds after you ask a question or ask for comments.

Whenever you are in a meeting, listen for this situation: The leader or someone will ask "Are there any questions?" When this happens, count the number of seconds before the leader says something like, "OK, then, we can move on."

Typically, this will be about one second. That's way too fast, especially for a global meeting. How many times have you heard someone say, "Hey, sorry, but I want to go back to a previous topic"? They were victimized by the lack of response time.

Do not make that mistake. Wait three to five seconds. Count it out to make sure. It may seem like a lifetime, especially if you have had too much espresso, but wait.

Let us count the reasons why you should wait…

  1. Some personalities require more time to formulate questions in mind
  2. Language barrier
  3. Multi-tasking
  4. Fear of answering slowing response
  5. Embarrassment / shyness
  6. Lack of confidence
  7. Lack of comfort in role
  8. Getting approval to ask question from someone
  9. Getting help wording question properly
  10. Side conversation or chat interfering with attention
  11. Delay due to concern over whether question is polite
  12. Time delay in transmission lines

If you have additional reasons, please comment to this post. Maybe you have stories about bad communication in meetings with global participants.

 

Avoid blaming an individual directly or indirectly during a meeting.

A person may be the immediate noticeable target, but rarely the root cause that should be the target of an effective response. And when you blame an individual in a meeting where participants are from multiple geographic zones, it creates an environment of fear and confusion that is not sustainably productive to provide you with the results you need.

Among the many and varied reasons why blaming an individual is the wrong approach are

  1. The individual worker thought what was done was correct and had no information otherwise
  2. According to the culture of the team, there was no communication problem
  3. The worker followed the practice expected in the business location where the worker was based
  4. The worker valued politeness over another criterion which was very different than your preference, but was expected in the worker's geographical zone
  5. Project scheduling did not properly consider religious holidays required of the worker's geographic location.

A better approach for a globally-sensitive leader is to focus attention on where in the process or interactions things went wrong and work in a positive collaborative manner to resolve the problem and avoid it in the future. You should explain that the objective is for everyone to come out looking successful.

In related cultural conversations, you can explain that politeness should be interpreted as helping everyone on the project be successful even if it means having to be open and honest. Give yourself as an example.

 

This technique, while time-consuming is actually a powerful global team-building activity. It sets the stage for your workforce to resolve their own intra-team problems - without you!

Posted on: March 20, 2017 11:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

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 (6)

Prioritization Gets More Done

Your project workers are busier than ever. They are working on your project, other projects, and completing work for the organization as a whole, going to training, charity work, special initiative team activities and more.

It is easy to let this overwhelm your ability to succeed in your project. Don't let it! There is still a way for you to get work done more efficiently. You have a powerful tool called prioritization. Prioritization is powerful because:

  • It works better the more work project workers have weighing them down.
  • When you prioritize what should happen in the project, you are being positive rather than saying what is going wrong.
  • Project workers are still empowered to do their own work, so you do not appear to be controlling.
  • You do not point out anyone's inadequacies, you focus on key tasks.

And it's not difficult to find times to use this tool. Opportunities to prioritize occur naturally in your duties as a project manager, for instance when you

  • Tell work teams about the upcoming tasks
  • Communicate to project workers about what is expected in the upcoming phase
  • Conduct a kickoff meeting
  • Talk with a team about their percent work complete on a set of tasks.

What you can probably improve on is using "prioritization language" more during these opportunities. Two key terms are urgent and important to the project. Urgent means the due date is now or very soon. An urgent task may need to be done, but does not have to be important to the project. Many urgent tasks are not very important.

A task that is important to the project has more value to the success of the project. For example,

  • A task that removes a risk causing the project to be overall status Red is more important than getting meeting notes out within the expected time.
  • One task may be a higher priority because it is on the critical path and another task has in actuality an extra week to complete before it delays the project schedule as a whole .
  • An activity might be a higher priority to your project because you have plenty of evidence that there will be delays associated with it, so you want to make sure it is started on time or earlier.

You don't want project workers bogged down in lower-priority urgent work and not getting to what is important, but that's what commonly happens. The vicious cycle is that once people focus on non-important urgent items, they take their eyes off of important tasks that can reduce the number of urgent tasks, causing more past-due frantic work. Putting out fires replaces time for team work planning.

Within any week, you can set and communicate the high-priority work tasks. You can also ask what non-urgent activities are interfering with time for important (high-priority) tasks. In my next post, I'll cover ways to communicate priorities so that the important work will take precedent in the project workforce. You'll also see how prioritization can help you build your reputation.

In the meantime, let me know what you are experiencing in your project workforce related to priorities (or lack thereof) and I'll try to use your examples in that post.

Posted on: June 20, 2016 10:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Communicate Value of Your Project Early

One problem that you as a project manager have to deal with early in the project is aligning workers to the objective of the project. This is not aligning to any specific deliverables, mind you. It's deeper than that. It's getting the agreement or consent to participate in the project as a whole.                           

You can't expect everyone to be doing their utmost for your project from the very start. Some people may work with you grudgingly and not believe in the purpose of your project. Some may not participate fully because they have a lot of conflicts even though they want to participate with you because they believe your project is so important to the company. There are many other possibilities.

So how do you get people to see your project as a priority? As an important project in the company? As a significant effort that they want to be seen participating in? As an activity that they may even want to spend a little extra effort making sure it is successful?

You can link your project to corporate strategy and business benefits in a powerful way. Who does not want to be part of meeting the business strategy and attaining business benefits?

First, connect your project to corporate strategy. Chris Cancialosi, PhD suggests a strategic narrative to communicate the corporate strategy. Your leaders may not be using the strategic narrative technique, but you can use ideas from that to build a better presentation of the link between your project and the business strategy.
    • Explain "what was", "what is" (just before and during the project), and "what will be" after the project and how your project makes that future happen. Make sense out of the change. Emphasize what will be better.
    • Link to values. There may be one or two that sync up nicely with your project
    • Link to profitability. Everyone wants more money coming in so they have more money for their teams. Profits come from reducing costs or increasing revenue, so pick the one that most closely represents your project
    
The second area is business benefits that are being sought. Again, this is a part of your conversations with stakeholders.   You should be able to identify something specific related to stakeholder interests, such operational efficiency, new capabilities, marketplace advantage, and so on.

This might seem a little too time- and energy-consuming . Is it worth the effort?
I think it is. Linkages to either of these areas will help build "employee engagement," that critical factor that gets workers to work hard and give a little extra when needed. ("Employee engagement" is a topic covered in this blog all the time.) You will also benefit from fewer conflicts from other projects because you will have established your project as a higher priority.

Still, your time is limited, how could you do this to make is less time consuming and fit into project activities?
    • Create a slide for your kickoff meeting or improve the one you already have for strategy link or business benefits from your project.
    • Get with your sponsor to confirm your understanding of connection to business strategy is correct. Have the "what was, what is, what is to be" narrative style in your mind as you confirm.
    • Get with stakeholders to find benefits or impacts in advance that fit into the mold of your connection to the strategy.
    • For business benefits, use the same tactics. Talk to the same people if those have not already been specified in the Charter or other project documentation.

The point is to have a powerful, succinct presentation that you use early in your project. This can put you ahead in the game to capture the time, attention and commitment of those who will make your project successful.

Posted on: March 13, 2016 06:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

When Collaboration Makes Things Worse

New research helps us understand how to use collaboration better - and the findings do not mesh with what is currently fashionable.

The guidance we are hearing now promotes collaboration strongly. This story by NPR, for example, explains how workers are being tagged and tracked to determine how they use and move about the workspace. The objective is to design workspaces so that workers interact more efficiently. The article  mentions experimentation using different snacks to find which is better to get people to congregate more in the break room.

What you know now is probably a summary of what has been reported as successful in previous years:  co-locate workers, and if they are geographically separated, use technology to help them feel they are closely connected, and so on. Co-location is a value of the SCRUM methodology as well.

But wait, all this togetherness is not always the best way! Sometimes it is better to separate workers.

We know this from a timely study where researchers had different groups solve problems in different ways. You can read about the details, but the summary for our purposes here is that collaborating close together was better for researching and gathering useful information. There was less redundant work and more got done.

On the other hand, when information was applied to coming up with solutions, togetherness brought about groupthink - too much consistency and reduced creativity. The researchers concluded that the two activities, information-gathering and solutioning, required different methods of using workers. The former was best done with close collaboration. The later was got better results with much less collaboration.

There was a comment in the last part of the NPR story where a workspace designer recommended putting in secluded areas where workers can be alone to avoid group think. It was the study mentioned here that really clarified one activity that required seclusion.

What can you do with this information to help improve performance?

  • Do support people collaborating generally. There really are benefits proven over many years.

  • Look for work that has a component where options must be created and a solution determined. Examples are:

    • Design for new mobile web pages

    • Options for training the project workforce or for business user group that is affected by technology change brought by project

    • Finding vendors and technological solutions

    • Resolving complex project issues

  • When "solution work" is found, try to structure the process into two phases, fact-finding followed by solutioning.

    • Organize participants in the first phase, if needed, to collaborate to divide and conquer the work. For example, they could list training topics needed by the business user group.

    •  For the solutioning phase, organize a small group to work as individuals to come up with the best solution for covering those topics. Continuing with the example, working separately, the project training lead and a couple of senior reps from the user group who are working to be supervisors create separate solutions. Perhaps these could be judged by the manager of the user group to be trained. The point is that the solution is more likely to be innovative and effective if determined in this way.

Try this tactic in a small way in your project. Maybe it will catch on and you will have been a change agent to create a more innovative culture in your organization. Sometimes the project manager role can be very powerful.

Posted on: June 01, 2015 09:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself."

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