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

Getting Those Approvals

Planning Around Scarce Expertise (RPA & OCM)

Beware Haloes & Courtesy Copies

Communicating the Vision (RPA & OCM)

Communicate the Schedule Early (RPA & OCM)

The Trick to Persuasion 2

We continue with the important topic of persuasion, giving you more and better ways to use the "persuasion tool.".

Here's a situation for you and a question:

You have to ask one of your team leads for an updated work schedule after a requirement was adjusted. Because of the decision meeting schedule, you need the update more quickly than will be comfortable for the team lead. You recall that the same team lead has rejected your requests the last couple of times. So should you expect better treatment this time or the same treatment as last time?

It's better to know in advance so that you can customize your approach. You don't want to take the wrong tone or say something that will make getting the information in a timely fashion less likely.


Use Previous Rejection to Your Advantage

Research was actually done related to this and the verdict is: Someone who has rejected you previously is more likely to grant your request. Perhaps it is because they are guilty from turning you down the first time. Doesn't really matter to you, actually. Make your request confidently, even if you have been rejected multiple times before, because the odds are in your favor.


Remind Target of Their Control

Unfortunately for us project managers, like the situation above, we are often in the situation where we can request that a task be done, but the individual we are requesting from does not have to grant our exact  request. Maybe they will grant the request eventually, but later than we need. Maybe they meet our timeline for providing information, but the quality of the information does not meet what we really need. We need all the persuasion tactics we can master to drive work to completion.

Ironically, you can be better off if you remind your target of their control when you frame your request. As part of your initial request, not later, you affirm the target's control in the situation by saying something like:

  • "You are certainly free to ignore this message. "  or
  • "I realize you do not have to do this..."  or
  • "Of course, you are not bound by the deadline mentioned."

There was a study done to confirm this was true looking across 42 separate previous studies. The tactic worked in most contexts, so definitely try it out when you make one of your more difficult requests.


Express Confidence in Worker Ability to Complete

If you are trying to persuade one or more people to complete a task, not necessarily make a decision, two points are important to get across:  your confidence that they can do it and that you are there to support the effort.


Assuming that you have defined what you want, a key motivator is that you have confidence that the worker or team can do the work. Say it clearly using words you are comfortable with. This statement reduces an unspoken concern over potential problems or failure that will result in negative consequences for those completing the task. This concern is always present, and more pronounced in certain environments, some of which you may have worked in. With this tactic, you can be the positive force that helps teams complete tasks in any environment.


For more on persuasion, check out where Christina DesMarais interviewed Clinical Psychologist Jeptha Tausig-Edwards.

What are tactics you use to persuade in difficult circumstances?

Posted on: February 04, 2017 07:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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)

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)

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)

How to Focus Attention on the Highest Priorities

In my last post the importance of managing to priorities (important tasks that are urgent) was illustrated. But wait, there's more.

There are more communication tactics to make sure workers and partners are focusing on the most urgent important tasks. You can break through their competing work and endless distractions and help them better organize their time by helping them make better choices about what to do now.

General rule:  When you communicate about tasks, include some measure of prioritization.

In your messages, focus on high-importance items as the highest priority. Identify them with highlighting. Put them at the top of lists. Mark them clearly such as "Priority: High" or "Important & Urgent."

Keep the highest current priorities in your mind.
Before meetings. Before just walking around, think about the priorities you want to communicate to your workers. Refresh you view every morning, every week, whatever is appropriate. New events bring about new priorities. You spend time thinking about this so that the workforce does not have to. You distill the wide project down to the critical priorities now.

When I have project teams in a meeting, I organize topics by priority. The agenda even has a column saying priority rather than topic number. This way, prioritization saturates all topics.

Communicate highest priority proactively in the field.
Talk proactively to team leads, partners, vendors, SMEs. Ask them what they are working on. Is it the highest priority task? Do they know the highest priority task? If not, pass on that information to them positively and constructively.

Help workers avoid low priority activities.
Tell them clearly that they can push out non-important urgent work to focus on important high-priority work. Low importance urgent work is the arch enemy of important work. Once they realize this trap, it will more likely become a habit. They will do this for all their work that competes with your project work, giving them more time overall to work on your project tasks.

When setting priorities, keep an open mind.
Priorities are important enough so that you want to discuss them with those affected. When setting priorities, treat the discussion as a two-way conversation rather than force your opinion on others. You may focus on the critical path as an obvious indicator of what is highest priority but your partners and team leaders could have another interpretation that you need to consider. They may have new information. They may indicate that they are not supporting your view so you know if you are in a troublesome situation. Open your mind and discuss items that you think are a critical priority. Ask if anyone disagrees. Make sure they talk and do not just be silent. Remind them that silence is consent. Help them feel comfortable sharing their opinion. Ask if there are any competing priorities that are relevant in the decision to set a priority on a task.


Remember, priority is like temperature. It is high or low. Do you know how to dress when someone tells you it is "temperature" outside? No. Likewise, don't tell someone that a task is a priority. Everything they are delegated is a priority. Help them understand what is the highest priority now. They will do the rest.

Posted on: July 20, 2016 11:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The creator of the universe works in mysterious ways. But he uses a base ten counting system and likes round numbers."

- Scott Adams