By Dave Wakeman
As you may have noticed, my attention during the pandemic has been largely focused on the lessons we can all learn about leadership.
Why mess with a good thing? So, I’ll continue to focus on leadership this month, since the lessons are still popping up fast and furious.
Let’s look at what we’ve learned so far about project leadership through the COVID-19 crisis and then turn those into a few actionable ideas we can all put into practice.
First, we’ve found that folks who led with science are the ones who have done a better job of fighting the disease. I’m looking at you Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany, to name three.
Second, we’ve seen that communication is crucial and that honest, consistent communication is the most important thing we can have. And, leaders who provide a vision, a plan and consistent updates are able to gather more support, achieve better outcomes and build more trust.
Third, we’ve seen that expertise matters and that it is impossible for one person to know everything about everything.
So, how do we continue to put these practices to use in our own project careers? Here are a few more ideas for all the leaders out there:
Trust the experts: The first and third points highlight an overarching theme of modern project management and modern leadership: No one knows everything—and I’d go one step further. One of the best things that an expert does is curate the overwhelming amount of knowledge out there in the world.
Again, in viewing the coronavirus press briefings around the world, you see countries toying with herd immunity and countries actually following that theory; then, you have countries with leaders who are offering up wildly unproven medical solutions; and you have other countries that have had stricter shutdown protocols.
What does this show us?
It shows us that there are going to be hundreds of solutions to every situation. Some of them have value and some of them are total quackery. This is why experts matter.
An expert can look at all of the tested options, all of the potential options and all of the long shots, and think through whether or not they are feasible, likely or improbable.
This matters, because as a project manager, you are likely always going to deal with a certain amount of risk—and just because something isn’t likely doesn’t mean it isn’t worth testing.
What it does mean is that you need to make sure that when you test an idea or a solution, you understand it might not work and are able to recognize success or failure through a lens of knowledge and trust in your team’s expertise.
Or, if you have a crazy idea that you might want to test due to the nature of the situation you are dealing with, you can try that as well—with the knowledge that the idea may have a low probability of success.
Leadership matters most during the tough times: It was recently May 4, the day when Star Wars is celebrated around the world. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, there is a scene in which Darth Vader confronts Orson Krennic about how he is handling the rebel alliance. Krennic makes a bunch of excuses and claims about the efficiency of his leadership and tries to win over Vader’s support for him to command the Death Star just as it was becoming a powerful weapon to terrorize the galaxy.
With his back to Krennic, Vader uses the force to put a choke hold on Krennic and tells him, “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”
I like to think that this is a great analogy for the kind of leaders who love to be leaders in the good times, but try to pass the buck when things go wrong.
The reality of leadership is that you have to take the good with the bad, and I think history has proven that the leaders who lead courageously through times of trouble are the ones who are remembered the most.
As an example, Abraham Lincoln is remembered for holding the United States together as the Civil War worked to tear it apart. Winston Churchill is remembered more for his leadership in World War II than he is remembered for any of his other accomplishments. And everyone remembers Mel Gibson’s speech in Braveheart before sending his army off to fight. Am I right?
The point I’m making is that leading is often about how you deal with challenging situations, change or turmoil—and not how you navigate the easy moments.
Why? Because it isn’t easy to make decisions in troubling times. There likely isn’t one answer, but many—all of which likely carry a certain amount of risk. How you deal with these situations defines you and determines whether you are a success or a failure as a leader.
How have challenging situations made you a better project leader?
By Emily Luijbregts
Is a full calendar a sign of an effective leader? Does having lots of meetings make you a better project manager?
I’d answer “no” to both of those questions. For several years, I rushed through days where I’ve barely had time to think as I went from one back-to-back meeting to the next. I missed lunch more times than I dare to count and often took work home with me to complete. Then a colleague challenged me: What if we could reduce all of our project meetings by 50 percent for one month? Would it work? In my case, it was such a success, I was determined to never go back to so many meetings again!
Let me start by addressing one of the biggest concerns I hear from project managers when I suggest this: Losing control. Yes, that may happen. But you need to trust your team and trust that if there are any issues, that these will be brought to your attention. Also, I’m not advocating for the cancellation of all meetings. Rather, this is about removing the unnecessary ones.
When I am brought in to take over projects, I now analyze what meetings are in place, what meetings are needed and if meetings should be repurposed for a different use. Here’s how to do it:
How to Reduce the Number of Meetings
For every meeting that you currently have scheduled in your calendar, ask yourself the following questions:
I also try to give people time before and after my meeting for preparation, travel and using the bathroom. So, for example, I might schedule a meeting 9:00-9:40 or 9:15-9:30.
When you start cancelling meetings, you may feel a loss of control or fear that you won’t have all of the information you need as a project manager. However, I would argue that if you use your meeting time effectively, you can still gain all of the information that you need—and not waste your teams’ time in the process.
How to Improve Your Meetings
The next step on our reduction journey is to evaluate how you lead and conduct meetings. If you need some tips, don’t hesitate to ask your colleagues or peers about what works for them. One piece of advice I was given that has always helped me is: “Control the meeting, not the conversation.” It’s important to make sure that every meeting is as effective as possible, so that the right information is shared with the right team members.
At the moment, we are going through an unprecedented period in history, and work has taken on a more virtual role. Learning how to lead effective virtual meetings is difficult! It’s not the same as managing onsite teams, and it does require an additional set of skills. Luckily, there are some great resources available that can help you enhance and improve your skills.
You may also find that during this time, more meetings suddenly appear on your calendar, as people want to catch up or hold a virtual chat. This is not necessarily a bad thing! It’s important to keep up your social contact with your colleagues. But be efficient with your time: If it’s an informal meeting, can you do it while you take your walk after lunch? If it’s a catch up, can you schedule it for a quieter period of your day?
I encourage you to take up the challenge and look at what meetings you can eliminate in your schedule. Let’s take back control of our day and give ourselves more time to actually work!
What are your favorite tips for avoiding unnecessary meetings?
By Lenka Pincot
When crisis strikes, the first thing we’d like to do is quickly re-prioritize, re-assign resources to the activities that provide the most value under the current circumstances and materialize the benefits as soon as possible. While this may be a distant dream for some organizations, it is far more realistic for those that have gone through at least the early stages of agile transformation.
Why is that?
In the 13th Annual State of Agile Report, the ability to manage changing priorities was listed as the top reported benefit of adoption of agile practices. It’s followed by project visibility. These two factors go hand-in-hand.
Companies with multiple project portfolios that have adopted large-scale agile practices must find a way to align priorities across compact cross-functional agile teams. This may be done in various ways, whether we call it Program Increment Planning (SAFe framework), Scrum of Scrums or Quarterly Business Reviews (inspired by Google and Netflix, and popularized by ING). These alignment activities all require agile teams to define their initiatives so that benefits are traceable and achievable on a short-term timeline. As such, it doesn’t leave much space for building dazzling business cases, right? At this point, the project visibility to all parties involved in prioritization and planning is crucial.
The OKR Method
Because agile teams maintain a certain level of dependencies among one another (e.g., shared technological platforms), their initiatives must be prioritized with this in mind. There is certainly more than one way to get these project teams on the same page and across the finish line together. I am preferential to the OKRs method, which involves translating business objectives (O) into actionable, quarterly-based commitments, or key results (KR). While objectives should describe what you want to achieve in a 12-to-18-month period, quarterly, measurable key results explain how you get there and are regularly redefined.
Next, ask agile teams to provide you with a clear link that shows how their initiatives support the quarterly key results. As a result, activities are exposed to an open discussion to determine how they support project goals and if they are enough to help project teams achieve what they need to achieve.
When strategic priorities change (e.g., a company needs to strengthen its online operations during the COVID-19 crisis, when a month ago its main revenues came from physical customer interactions), you assign higher priority to the respective OKRs and move the linked initiatives to the top of the list. But this only works if you’ve achieved a high level of transparency and trust across the organization. And agile teams provide smaller and more measurable product increments, so that their business value is easy to understand.
Because agile teams are stable, they have resources to execute the top priorities instantly. The agile mode of delivery is iterative, so there is no need for detailed analysis prior to the actual implementation. Teams are actionable right after re-prioritization occurs.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience such high agile organizational maturity firsthand. It is fair to say that achieving the organizational capabilities described above takes many years and a lot of persistence, coaching and awareness-building. But once you’ve moved to such a stage, you know that the agile approach will have your back when you need it most.
How has agile helped your team manage changing priorities?
Will the Real Agile Please Stand Up?
By Christian Bisson
It appears as if “agile” has become the buzziest of buzzwords. But are organizations using it correctly? As I’ve evolved towards agility in the last several years, I’ve come across many job descriptions that claim and demand agility. Sadly, the term is often only used to lure people in.
Today, the younger workforce expects agility in certain industries. But when the term is used as a buzzword rather than in its true meaning, that can lead to problems later on.
So, how do you spot the difference between real agility and yet another buzzword? Here are a few things to look out for in organizations:
Analyzing job descriptions is one of the fastest ways to spot anti-agile patterns before you invest any time in interviews. These descriptions will often use words that actually go against what you would expect from an agile organization.
For example, if you look at the scrum master’s job description, you may find traditional project manager responsibilities, such as: “create project plan,” “coordinate team,” or even “responsible for the product backlog.”
For other roles, such as a developer, you will see all the standard requirements about programming languages, architectural experience, etc., but the description will fail to mention anything about being on a multidisciplinary team, a self-organized team or anything you would expect from an agile team.
Another description to watch out for is the typical “can work in a fast-paced environment” mandate, which is more often than not code for “lots of overtime” and goes against having a sustainable pace for teams. You may risk joining a chaotic work environment and delivering poor quality work because of all the demanding deadlines.
Prioritizing work at an organizational level is key to being able to deliver value and avoid waste. And those priorities must be communicated to teams in a timely manner so they can plan their sprints properly.
If this is not the case, you will notice that sprints are not respected and always change, the work delivered does not bring value to anyone, and the word “urgent” is repeated every single day.
Some organizations struggle with this but are working toward getting better. Here are a few behaviors to look out for:
A well-powered team that is set up for success will deliver value. But if the team is expected to execute without any discussion with upper management, then you may be in a traditional management type of organization instead of an agile one.
Pay attention to things like:
To be fair, lots of organizations simply misunderstand agile and its related lexicon, and might not actually intend to lure anyone through outright manipulation. But there are many that do, and those are the ones to look out for. Chances are, if they are being misleading in order to attract people to work for them, these organizations will act similarly to keep talent working for them—and not necessarily in the best of circumstances.
How do you see “agile” being misused in organizations?
By Jen L. Skrabak, PfMP, PMP
“It is not the strongest that survive, but those most adaptable to change.” —Charles Darwin
It seemed as if everything changed overnight when the news of the COVID-19 pandemic broke. In California, where I am located, we went from the hustle and bustle of going to work every day and an abundance of options in travel, restaurants, entertainment and events to self-isolation, mandatory family time and the shuttering of many businesses.
We adapted quickly to schools and workplaces being closed. And most project managers, who are fortunate to fit into the small percentage of the workforce able to work remotely, are working from home.
So, what can we learn from all this change? It’s important to reflect on the leadership lessons that will carry us through this crisis—and beyond:
1. Welcome change.
I think the area that reflects the greatest change to everyday life is the grocery store. As essential businesses, grocery retailers were forced to change their business model and how they operate while staying open and serving customers. Each day, stores implemented new procedures to adapt to rapidly shifting federal, state and local requirements.
I was at a grocery store recently and noticed how, in a span of days, the business had changed its hours, hired thousands of new workers to stock shelves, implemented hourly cleaning procedures, installed new systems for checkout, managed a surge in online orders and even adjusted how groceries were bagged. California typically charges a fee for plastic bags to encourage shoppers to bring their own. That’s changed. Many stores no longer want you to bring your own bags, and now they are giving away bags for free. During a recent visit to my local grocer, the cashier told me they were running out of bags, and I said I could just take the larger items without having them bagged. I commented on the shifting dynamic I witnessed.
The cashier replied: “It will change again.”
It’s a great sentiment and true demonstration of leadership from someone who is experiencing a great amount of change every day at work. It’s not just the changes that are forced upon us, but more importantly, how we adapt to those changes with agility. It starts with us.
2. Master agility.
When this crisis is over (and it will be), take the time to understand what distinct behaviors work well rather than just going back to the way things were. I have found that turning on the video in conference calls is a more effective way to engage with teams vs. just having audio. In fact, research shows that 80 percent of people on audio-only conference calls are multi-tasking. And people rely on body language to help understand the message. The most important takeaway is to approach new things with curiosity and a desire to learn. Don’t just return to your comfort zone.
3. Work with what you’ve got.
It seems that every day, we hear new information that conflicts with the old information. First, the experts told us not to wear masks. Or that only N95 masks are effective. Then, we were told to wear masks when we went outside and that any cloth or scarf would be fine.
When dealing with complex issues, there is a constant stream of new information that we must digest and react to. The ability to keep working well and moving forward, despite the ambiguity, means that we don’t wait for the perfect information in order to start developing and executing plans.
4. Embrace the now.
If you took it for granted that you could get a haircut, go to that restaurant you’ve always wanted to try or travel to a dream destination anytime, we now know that things can change in an instant. Procrastination may result in objectives not getting met at all or a delay that may last months or years.
The lesson here is to prioritize what’s important—and do it now. Good time management practices show that handling something (like an email) once and making a decision on it right away is more effective than putting it aside or making a task list to deal with it later.
5. Be thankful.
While this is a stressful and difficult time, there’s also a lot to be grateful for, such as more time with family, no commute, less pollution and a focus on simplicity. Take a moment at the start of each day to remind yourself of three things that you’re thankful for—and why they are really important to you. It will make you happier and more focused for the day ahead.
What leadership lessons has the pandemic taught you? Sound off in the comments below.