Project Management

Eye on the Workforce

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.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

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)

Beware Haloes & Courtesy Copies

As a project manager, managing people is a large component of your work. So it's worth Think about how you learn the techniques you use. Do some come from experience? From books, seminars or training courses? Did you learn some from watching others? Do you do things because everyone else does them?

Some of the techniques you use may be unproven. That is , they may not have been through rigorous testing to ensure they work. And if they have not, then you cannot be sure they work or even if they have the opposite effect than you want them to have.

Next, for your edification, are a couple of examples of what you can learn when people management techniques are studied.

Beware of the halo effect.

Imagine you are selecting between three candidates for a project analyst. You follow the common practice of interviewing the top candidates in order to choose the best one for the job in your project. The first comes recommended by people you have worked with and trust. They are in a different line of business with a very different culture, but tell you that the analyst has worked very well there. You talked to this candidate very briefly on the phone and liked her positive energy. She does not know much about your business, however.

The second candidate is from outside your company, but from the same line of business and a similar culture. He has plenty of experience. But, really…who cares?  You have a decent recommended candidate that can be quickly transferred into your project. She's one of those great performers who do well in any situation.

Hold it right there! You are under influence of the halo effect! This syndrome causes you to think that an individual who has been found to excel at one job, will be good at almost anything. This is not true. Many studies over the years have shown that the halo effect appears in many situations and that it can lead to problems for the worker and the business.

Typically candidate selection follows a standard process, but I have never seen one that is specifically designed to avoid the halo effect. You have to do that yourself.

  • When you are given candidates with high performance recommendations, check the circumstances under which that performance was achieved (job responsibilities, organizational complexity, culture).
  • If the circumstances  of your project are different, then give that recommendation less weight.

Beware the effects of the courtesy copy.

The second example is about the importance of knowing how to courtesy copy ("CC") people in emails. You probably have gotten the idea by now that communication and transparency can be improved easily by copying anyone involved on your emails. That way everyone is in the loop and cannot come back and say that they did not know what was going on. What did people ever do without email at work?

David De Cremer says his research indicates that courtesy copying can actually reduce trust, just the opposite effect that you want. Here's how you could be surprised in your project by the implications of your "courtesy":

  • You write an email to the QA lead with some planning questions. You copy the lead's boss because he is a very interested and participative business stakeholder to the project. But soon after you send the email, the QA lead comes to you asking why you copied his boss. Don't you think he was going to respond quickly enough? Has there been a problem in the past with his partnership?
  • When you write a request for participation in a series of meetings to a team lead in your project, you copy the team lead's boss in case the lead's boss had a problem with the amount of time, or other input. Right after you send the email, the lead calls you and asks if you have been asked by her boss to send updates on what you and her are doing.

These two examples show how workers can get the idea, whether true or not, that they are being monitored or micromanaged in some way. They get suspicious, especially in cultures where no clear policies in this area have been created. An undercurrent of mistrust leads to just the opposite culture than what was desired from this type of transparency.

What can you do in your project?

  • When developing your communication plan, discuss with team leads and stakeholders what information they want, and what is unnecessary. Generally, no leader or partner wants to sift through dozens of emails where project teams are working routinely, even if problem-solving. That's a productivity sink.
  • Create a project policy that sticks to this communication plan and lets teams work out problems on their own, without communicating "up". Specify that escalations will be used when teams cannot make progress without higher level participation, intervention or approval.
  • Watch for evidence of mistrust and intervene.

If you have experience with or other ideas on these topics, please comment.

The series on Organizational Change Management using Robotic Process Automation examples will return in my next post.

Posted on: August 22, 2017 08:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)

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 (3)

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 (3)

Bring on Replacements Faster

Our theme this month is emerging trends and I wrote an article based on economic and demographic trends. It was about retaining employees - avoiding "job switching" to other employers or other projects in the face of more opportunities in the improving economy.

But there is more to tell on how to adapt to these current economic changes. Namely, what do you do if, despite your efforts to retain workers, you have to replace a worker? Job switching is more of an issue now and will increase in the future. Recruiters are using LinkedIn and other sophisticated methods to find those who are unsatisfied with their current positions. Replacement is time consuming and expensive, so you want to do whatever you can to reduce these adverse impacts.

These ideas should help get you started.

Position your position and culture as desirable . . . Workers in all demographic groups want  flexibility, manageable deadlines and management who cares. To the extent your project and organization can meet these needs, promote that in your job opening descriptions to differentiate your position from competitors.

For positions or temporary assignments that need less experience, perhaps those desirable to Millennial generation candidates, promote what you do to focus on their developmental needs. Describe how you enable growth and development while on the job.

Help your own recruiters sell you position in a sophisticated manner. Your recruiters may not know how appealing your project is, but you do. Give them the information they need to sell it.

Understand the recruiting process early . . . Meet with your recruiters to see what the process entails. Review it to determine what you will have to do to move quickly if necessary. What are the lead times? Is there anything for which you need clarification before you have to actually follow the process?

Prepare in advance for worst case scenario . . . Reduce risk by identifying the key resources - the ones that will cause issues immediately if they  leave. Have a contingency plan ready. It may be that you just immediately look for a quick replacement and, if there is not one, then you communicate a project issue related to the activity. You may have to put the activity on pause until a replacement found. This is the kind of thing you need to know in advance.

Get your other workers involved .. . Others in your project and workplace know people who may make great candidates. Use them. You may already have some kind of recruitment program where your own employees can be rewarded for finding successful candidates. If so, promote this program when a resource gap opens. If you have no such program, then ask your team for help. They have connections and will want to get the right person in place.

Don't be caught short as job switching increases. Do some basic planning so that you are ready to act quickly to replace resources who are lost. It's an important way to ensure your project is delivered successfully.

Posted on: December 20, 2014 05:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two Candidate Characteristics to Verify AFTER They Start Work

In your projects, you may bring in contingency workers to "try before you buy" before making them full-time employees. The question is do you know what to look for during this period? It's worth taking the time to plan to get this right because it is costly and frustrating to make an error in hiring, as has been covered in the Eye before. 

Taking a step back for a second, think about the interview process. You ask questions to check whether the candidate fits the position. But can every characteristic be clearly verified in the interview process? No. There are certainly factors that are verifiable during an interview and others that are very difficult to judge during an interview.

It would be helpful now to have a practical way to categorize characteristics being sought in candidates. CEO of oDesk Gary Swart did just that recently here (login may be needed). He uses four categories:

  • Skills
  • Knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Personal Characteristics  

In my estimation, the top two are easier to verify during the interview. The bottom two are more difficult, making them better for verifying during actual working time. Here are tips for doing that.

Assessing Motivation

You know it is difficult to judge a person’s motivation fully in an interview, but weeks or months of working with that person in the heat of a project battle will reveal the truth. Does the worker show evidence of being

  • Team-focused OR self-serving?
  • Results-oriented OR obsessed with career advancement?
  • Supportive of long-term organizational success OR of short-term gain for notoriety?

Monitoring Personal Characteristics

It will help to use a few of examples from Gary Swart’s list of personal characteristics: integrity, passion and judgment. We’d all like to know that these characteristics are displayed in ways that are constructive and productive. So while the contingency worker completes tasks and interacts with the project team and stakeholders, monitor behavior so that you can see whether the worker

  • behaves and communicates in an authentic way
  • elicits trust
  • is prepared for meetings
  • shows excitement for the project objectives
  • appears to be “building a castle” rather than merely laying bricks
  • interprets messages correctly
  • considers alternatives before acting in controversial or complex situations
  • appropriately (per your culture) uses short cuts and influence to get results

With this practical way to categorize characteristics and evaluate a candidate, you can create a more sophisticated selection process that extends into the working period and does a better job of finding and hiring that high performer you desperately need.

Posted on: October 07, 2013 10:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Women, poets, and especially artists, like cats; delicate natures only can realize their sensitive nervous systems.

- Helen M. Winslow