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Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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6 Ways to Keep Agile Teams on Track

Categories: Agile, Leadership

By Soma Bhattacharya

Agile teams are being tested. The world has changed, and many teams—no matter what their structure was prior to the pandemic—are working from home, on top of dealing with increased COVID-19 challenges. While the demand for deliverables and work continues, the roles, responsibilities and efficiency of agile teams come into question. 

An agile team can, in most cases, work around the uncertainty and still get things done. To keep your agile teams moving forward, implement these six strategies:

1. Focus on the planning.

Yes, everything is subject to change, but planning is essential. This exercise (release planning, grooming or sprint planning) allows team members to understand the upcoming work and ask the right questions on time. Additionally, it’s a great way to train team members to provide estimates after going through the requirements in detail. This allows for better planning, wonderful execution and timely delivery instead of spillovers. Teams can use a variety of platforms available online to get the training done. Tools aren’t as important as the interaction itself. 

2. Track team health.

I always think the organic way to look at team health is through the consumption of buffer percentage. It is simple because during planning, your team assigns hours to tasks and you get the total hours you will need to complete the user stories. You also know the team’s total capacity (availability of the team during the sprint). Create a team buffer of about 10 percent and then plan for the sprint.

If during the course of the sprint your team consumes the buffer and still has spillover, you can increase the buffer. Track the consumption of the buffer percentage and determine if the team is estimating correctly, and if they are clear about the user stories. Buffers can let you know the team’s performance and, with it, the trend of the team’s deliverables. 

3. Prioritize retrospectives.

Teams must have a growth mindset, and nothing is better for fostering one than the ingrained cultural habit of retrospectives in agile teams. There are creative ways of conducting retrospectives during these times, even if they require workarounds. For example, perhaps instead of just focusing on the work and aligned data, retrospectives can include personal challenges as well. This not only allows the team to gather and feel seen and heard, it also allows teams to evolve and see if there are ways to reduce personal challenges. 

4. Encourage leadership.

Leadership shouldn’t be limited to just a coach or the leadership team. In fact, team members should be trained to make decisions when it comes to work or conflict management. I have always found that when the team lead or management encourages an open mindset for teams, teams take up challenges or new learnings because of the support they receive. These teams always perform better in the long run. 

5. Determine the happiness index.

Apart from other team data, there should be an insight that allows you to understand how a team is doing emotionally. In a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains that a happy team can better handle complex problems. Finding the happiness index is one of the most revelatory exercises you can do with a team. Simply ask everyone to rate their happiness working with the team on a scale of 1 to 5 and why. Keep it anonymous so people share honestly, and you will be surprised what comes out. These are all hints that can lead you to identify unresolved conflicts, build retention and discover serious issues. 

6. Take action.

Many of us have good intentions. But unless there are actions that follow, trust falls apart. Be careful in committing too much and always follow up, whether it involves actions required from the last retrospective or something that has come to your attention.

What are some ways you keep your agile team on track? Share in the comments below. 

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: August 18, 2020 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Can Agile Help You Make the Most of Millennial Team Members?

Categories: agile

By Soma Bhattacharya

56 million. That’s the estimated number of millennials currently working or seeking work—making individuals born between 1980 and 2000 the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, according to the Pew Research Center.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

By 2025, millennials will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce. Companies like Accenture have already reported that millennials represent over two-thirds of the company’s entire employee base.

As of late, agile has been sparking more and more conversations—about how it has worked wonderfully well for some organizations and failed for others. 

If you look at the profiles of the organizations or teams reporting their project progress, their successes and failures often point to the workforce and, of course, company culture. For many startups and young organizations, where the workforce is mostly millennial, agile seems to be accepted more easily. I know this personally because I have seen companies—small companies that are very open and motivated to make it work—with huge support from management make it successful.

I believe that agile works better for teams of millennials simply because the approach focuses on many of the same qualities that are among the core values of millennials.

Let’s look at some of them:

Empowerment: Agile is all about empowering individuals. From holding team ceremonies to the team structure, it’s all about interacting as a group, coming together every day and making decisions as a unit. Nearly 50 percent of millennials believe leadership signifies the empowerment of others, according to a Workplacetrends.com survey. They also seem to value traits of humility, openness and continual learning, promoting the importance of recognizing both strengths and weaknesses. 

Transparency: Transparency, another pillar of agile, is easier said than done. Millennials believe in looking at the bigger picture of their organizations and teams. They want to participate in that shared vision. There are companies that have transparent salaries, are candid about their roadmaps and quickly own their mistakes. This leads to teams that are transparent among themselves about what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. 

Visibility: Visibility is also critical, because it impacts how teams distribute work. It fosters quicker decision-making and more effective resource management. Unless the value is explained and showcased in clear terms, it’s natural that certain tasks will seem like a boring chore. This means the role of mentors and leaders is of high importance in how the team is trained and how team members communicate. 

Trust: Trust in the team, leadership, and, yes, estimation. If you look at the root cause analysis of why it doesn’t click with some teams, there’s a larger story to tell. It could be people who prefer to work in silos or a lack of trust. By pivoting, you can probably get the team to rethink their estimation based on asking the right questions or pairing up team members so the experienced ones can help their juniors. You can mentor the team to get things done quicker. It’s all about how you communicate without damaging team morale. 

Acknowledgement: Communication is an art, and millennials use all forms of communication to get things done. Smaller teams, as used in scrum, also mean better communication, faster decisions and acknowledgement. Millennials thrive on acknowledgement more than anything. They need to know their work matters. 

Perspective: Learning and having a growth mindset is essential to adopting any new process. That’s why the way you approach the team about change or how you handle and mentor the team is so important. Don’t introduce every change on day one, and don’t blame those changes on agile. Give everyone the time to doubt, adapt and see it for themselves. Meanwhile, be with them, give them the right information and take the journey with them. There’s nothing more apt than using the Goldilocks rule in this scenario. 

Motivation: Give them a challenge with a difficulty level that slowly scales up and allows them to feel accomplished. Telling them to run a marathon when they have never walked a mile before is not only foolish, but a huge demotivator. 

Gratification: Millennials also look for immediate gratification. There’s a talk by the author Simon Sinek in which he mentions that millennials are used to having everything immediately: You want a phone? You can order it online and get it delivered in a day or two. You want a shoe? You have so many shops and online stores to choose from. Unsurprisingly, millennials in the workforce also crave immediate feedback and want to feel confident at work without waiting until they hit the six-month mark. They want to be happy, get things done faster and work for something they truly believe in.

True agility is also a test of how the organization forms itself. If you really want the team to have the right dynamics and bonding, appraisals should put more weight in team performance than individual performance. For extrinsic motivators, this will have a great impact. 

As it also turns out, at companies where managers show sincere interest in millennials as people, the organization sees an 8x improvement in agility and a 7x increase in innovation, according to a Great Place to Work survey. Now that’s something to think about. 

What has been your experience with agile and millennial team members? Share in the comments below.

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: March 25, 2020 02:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Why Agile Is a Humane Way to Work

Categories: Agile

Years ago, when I first heard of agile making waves, I was curious enough to pay for a class out of my own pocket to learn more. 

By the end of the two-day session, I knew I wanted to be associated with agile. It wasn’t just its merits that convinced me—it was the basic philosophy of trusting another being, of being open to communication and most of all, respecting another’s opinion. It seemed humane.

In the mad rush of work, all of the above are often sidelined. There’s no time for niceties, no time to respect another opinion; there’s only the ambition to prove another wrong. 

It’s miserable. 

Agile teaches us to be open, trustworthy and make mistakes. Failure isn’t the end of the road; risk-taking and experimentation are supported and bonhomie is encouraged. 

My Experiments With Agile

As I started working as an agile coach, I brought in the humane side of work. I helped my teams to stop finger-pointing and instead, really talk during standups. I tried to liven up the mood by asking team members about the last book they read or movie they watched, and I learned the name of the scrum master’s kid. This helped the team get to know each other as humans. 

I planned games and drew on whiteboards so team members could match the hobby with the individual who practiced it. It was hilarious. Interest grew, not in agile but in knowing each other and building better relationships with team members. 

We celebrated birthdays, we talked about failure, trust and anything that would bring out even the introverts and encourage them to join discussions. Everyone’s opinion mattered. The right complexity point during estimations didn’t matter, as long as everyone was talking and participating. 

And our work wasn’t virtual anymore. I would move a story card to completion, draw to celebrate the completion of a goal and use the white board to keep the team motivated with quotes, scribbles and doodles. It got everyone involved. 

Managers soon joined the sessions, sometimes just listening when they were uncomfortable. It allowed team members to be vocal and to think for themselves. Everyone was involved—not because that’s how it should be done, but because it takes time to build that vibe and tribe. 

Why Agile Works

Agile isn’t for measuring KPIs or bringing in ROI. But those results happen, because the team comes together and enjoys working with each other. 

Agile has been written about over and over again, from why it works to why it’s a failing fad. People rarely see the fact that agile has made many organizations humane again. The best way to understand agile is to think about working in a secure, comfortable environment with people you trust. 

In 2013, Rosabeth Moss Kanter published an article in the Harvard Business Review about how the happiest people seek out the most complex problems. It just makes sense to keep individuals and the team happy at work. 

It can be intimidating to turn around a team struggling with bad quality, low productivity and minimum engagement. But the best fix has always been to get team members to feel engaged, and that their views are heard and their opinion respected. It’s always about people. Once you get that right, the rest is easier. 

I have always had a positive experience with agile. When everybody comes together and believes in it, I have seen change happen. However, the most rewarding experience for me has always been that associates in an organization become humane again. They care about their colleagues, they speak face to face and they handle difficult discussions better. 

What about you? If your organization has embraced agile, what results have you seen?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: January 14, 2020 11:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Reflections on a Personally Influential Project

Categories: Social Responsibility

My interest in project management started long ago. When I was a kid my family would visit Kolkata, where my grandparents lived, on holidays. It was a busy city and a big change for someone growing up in a small town.

As much as I loved all the shops and eateries, the main attraction was the metro. Opened in 1984, it was the first of its kind in India. I had heard many stories about how you would travel underground. The thrill of my first ride as a kid was unimaginable. 

It was amazing to see how the metro touched the lives of so many. It made travel so much easier and faster. The impact that a project could have stuck with me.

After I’d grown up and was a newbie stepping into the world of project management, I wanted my own project—something where I would be in charge. 

One morning my prayers were answered, and I was offered an opportunity. That said, the work on this project was negligible, it would last just a few weeks and the money wasn’t much. 

Even so, I jumped at the chance. I worked on the project with a small team of mostly fresh grads, and we made sure every detail was covered. We checked and double-checked everything. We communicated with the stakeholder regularly and started sending her updates and snippets of the work as it was happening. This was way before agile was a norm. 

She came back with feedback and changes, and we were quick enough to get it back to her ahead of schedule. 

The work kept on coming, and this tiny project slowly became one that everyone started to notice. It was the project that established me as a project manager. 

I knew I wanted to work on something that would make everyone’s lives easier. I knew that a project could create an impact. In a lot of ways that first ride on the metro had sealed my basic philosophy in my life journey and career. 

I want to hear from you. What was the first project you remember as a kid?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: October 27, 2019 01:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Debunking Six Misconceptions About Agile

Categories: Agile

For those of us in the project management community, agile is a familiar term. But despite its prominence, it’s often misunderstood. 

All too often, teams and organizations focus on the wrong things or are misinformed. And eventually, agile takes the blame. 

Here are six common misconceptions that can lead to an anti-agile mindset:

  1. It is all about the tool. Any tool that’s hailed as what makes agile works is still just a tool. Yes, with distributed teams it helps to have a tool where everyone has access to project details and data. However, when introducing your team to agile, your training shouldn’t be tool-centric. I prefer teams to see and understand how agile really works—the simple use of sticky notes or a whiteboard does the trick. The move to a tool can and will happen eventually, and when it occurs, you don’t have to send multiple follow-ups to ensure the team is populating the data. 

 

  1. Agile is changing requirements in the middle of the sprint. While agile is known for inspecting and adapting, changes can get out of control. I hear teams talking about changes happening so often that they can barely focus on the work, or they are constantly handling changes. When the pressure to change a requirement is happening too often within a sprint and ends up becoming a norm in the team, the product managers or sponsors need to jump in to determine what needs to be built. Otherwise, team members tend not to focus on the work because they know no matter what they do today, everything will change tomorrow.

 

  1. Agile doesn’t use data. The idea that data isn’t tracked is wrong. In fact, there are many ways to look at data. However, we also have to be mindful so data isn’t just being used for the sake of data, leading teams to start bluffing around it.  

 

  1. Agile doesn’t offer predictability. You’ll often hear that there was better predictability before—and now nothing works. Sponsors always need to know the timeline. And yes, this can be done in agile. In fact, using and tracking the right data can bring in the predictability your team needs. The velocity metric will let you know how much a team can handle in a sprint. So, whether it’s a burndown chart, sprint or release planning, there are multiple ways to get the required predictability and commit accordingly.   

 

  1. Agile doesn’t offer time to think. I recently was in a session about thought leadership and someone mentioned agile being the greatest blocker because there was no time to think. Interpretation, I believe, is the biggest problem of all. You can still block a certain percentage of your team’s capacity or yours to try out new ideas, participate in hackathons or learn a new skill that adds advantage to your product or service. If you are not speaking up about the problems, you should. And if flexibility isn’t allowed, that’s because of the team culture, not the process. 

 

  1. Agile is all about micromanagement. One of the funniest misconceptions I’ve heard is that an organization moved to agile because leadership wanted everything to be micromanaged. Individuals didn’t understand that team capacity and complexity (as measured in story points) aren’t ways to track team members. Instead, they are tools to help team members make the right commitments during their sprints, commitments they can actually keep and deliver. In this case, a lack of explanation about why the organization moved toward agile triggered multiple miscommunications. So, the responsibility lies with management and the agile coach to take the time to explain the move to agile. Because instead of micromanagement, agile is really about the opposite. It, in fact, allows teams to be empowered, to be able to self organize, to be vocal and to get the work done. 

These are six misconceptions I’ve seen about agile. What are the common ones you’ve encountered?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: May 24, 2019 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)
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