Viewing Posts by Emily Luijbregts
By Emily Luijbregts
During my presentation at this year’s PMXPO, I received a lot of questions about the skills needed to adapt to and excel in leading virtual teams. It seems to be something that a lot of project managers are struggling with at the moment, but it’s something that can be easily learned.
It all begins with building a strong foundation. First, make sure you understand each team member’s motivations and ambitions. If you do this, you’ll be able to better predict or know when there’s something wrong. If someone on your team is focused on receiving positive feedback, for example, that person may get demotivated or stressed when they don’t receive praise or are criticized. But if you don’t understand the root cause of this issue, you only see the person struggling.
You might be aware of Bruce Tuckman’s theory on team development in which teams move through five stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning. Do you know where your team members are right now? Where they’re struggling? What are their weaknesses? If you can look at this, you will be able to see the best way of managing them successfully.
Some teams won’t follow a linear pattern: They may regress during times of stress, the duration of the phases will not be identical and there may be times when it feels like they’re going through several phases in one day.
Once you’ve built your foundation, here are four more tips for managing remote or hybrid teams:
You need to define how the team will communicate and establish why it’s important to follow the protocols but also understand any restrictions. Someone might not have access to a webcam or have bandwidth issues due to unstable internet connection, for example. I recommend creating a team charter so everyone buys into the rules being agreed upon.
One of the most important skills right now is being able to build a team even as people are working remotely or in a hybrid environment. How can you do that? Icebreakers allow team members to open up about themselves and share common interests. Or you can try to gamify project activities. If you use agile, for example, ask team members to estimate how many tasks they think they can complete by the end of the sprint.
This is a really difficult skill to master, especially with remote team members as it’s even easier to get distracted. But try to take copious notes, ask follow-up questions and make sure the team has the opportunity to speak. If someone doesn’t have anything to say, try asking a future-looking question like: What are you aiming to complete in the next week? Where do you need support in the next period? In remote settings
What are you communicating? How are you communicating it? Is it the best way? Most importantly, how can these messages be sent with clarity through the remote-work ecosystem? You can monitor how well you’re doing through daily check-ins with your team, stand-ups or individual calls. But be sure to be patient with your team—and yourself—as you navigate virtual communication.
What are your lessons learned for leading remote/hybrid teams?
by Emily Luijbregts
As a project manager, one of the worst things in the world is feeling like you’ve failed a team member. Earlier in my career, I experienced this feeling quite a few times. It was a really steep learning curve for me, but after gaining more experience, I thought that I knew how to communicate and manage teams. Still, I wasn’t prepared to adjust my approach to lead virtual teams amid the pandemic. And then I learned.
Here are my most valuable lessons learned for leading virtual teams:
One of the most effective ways for me to manage my team is to establish ground rules at the start of the project and some clear expectation management for how we are going to work, what’s important for all of us as a team and what they can expect from me. It’s really important to avoid making any assumptions for how you think people want to work or what they are motivated by, as there is a high chance that you might be wrong. It’s not just about knowing your team members, but about having a deeper understanding of their motivations.
I’ve had several team members who have burned out. Most recently, I’ve been mentoring someone, who, since March, was working 14-hour days because they felt like they had to be seen working. When I asked them about their work-life balance, I was bluntly told that it didn’t exist. They were completely isolated from interactions outside of work and this caused a dramatic deterioration in their mental wellbeing.
One easy way for me to address the work-life balance of my team is to address the meetings I schedule. Are they really needed? Do I have the right attendees in the meeting? Are the meetings the right length? I’ve managed to cut down 50 percent of my meetings and avoid Zoom fatigue by arranging shorter catch-ups or different meetings entirely to get the same information.
If you can, try to interact face-to-face at the start of the project. Using video can really help build trust. Another method for building a meaningful connection is to invest in your team members and ensure they have an opportunity for grow within your project. I try to understand each person’s own development plan and where they want to go in the next year(s), so I’m able to support that.
Try doing quizzes, virtual team lunches, show and tell, and setting aside time in team meetings for small activities, like online trivia or other conversational “ice breakers.”
I like to encourage my team to be innovative and creative. That includes having people think about how they work and if there’s a better way to do the work itself. As the project manager, you should understand how your team works most effectively and then protect its ability to do so.
What are the biggest virtual leadership lessons learned you’ve gathered this year? Let me know in the comments.
by Emily Luijbregts
One of the greatest things you can bring to a project is your ability to manage and deal with the expectations of your team and stakeholders. How many times have you struggled with people making assumptions about how something should be done or when they should receive the final deliverable? All of this can be managed with effective expectation management.
When I’m coaching junior project managers, I encourage them to look at expectation management as setting the ground rules for a successful project and engagement. Having clear expectations ensures everyone is aware of what’s going to happen, what’s expected of them in the project and, more importantly, what they can expect from you as a leader.
In the project kickoff meeting, spend time working through this topic as a team so each person can spell out preferred working styles and communication methods as well as establish the factors for achieving success as a team.
As a project manager, you need to make sure that your role as leader is clear and everyone knows what they can expect from you. This doesn’t just include how you will manage them individually, but also what you can give them within the project. For me, I state they can expect that:
I consider my role in projects as a servant leader. I’m there to support my team of experts and give them the environment they need to be able to excel—and deliver. Having clear guidance, expectations and rules helps and supports this endeavor.
I would strongly recommend you avoid forcing, accusing or belittling any of the team whilst making these rules clear—it will only lead to resentment and conflict. Bring each of these rules to the team constructively and openly and explain why it’s important for you. For example, if one of the ground rules is no trash talking, you should provide a rationale, such as: Negativity and conflict can happen so easily in projects, but speaking poorly of your colleagues won’t help. If you have an issue, bring it to your project manager or discuss with the person themselves.
By raising these issues early, you’re being proactive in identifying the issue at hand and working toward a solution. I have yet to see an organization that does not react positively when presented with these questions in an open and constructive way.
What are some of the ways you effectively manage expectations?
by Emily Luijbregts
I often take on the role of escalation manager. I’m brought into projects when things are going wrong. It’s my goal to bring the project back on track and repair the working relationship with the teams and the end-customers to ensure we can have a lasting, productive partnership.
Rebuilding a poor relationship with your clients takes time, effort and sincerity. You need to be able to convince those involved that you’re the right person for the job—that you can be the change they need to see on the project. You also need to be clear with your own management about whether it’s worth the time and effort required.
The first thing I do when I come onto projects is talk to the key members of the team and the customer so I’m aware of the conflicts, issues and expectations. This step is the most important—you have to look at the current situation before you start investigating the history
Next, it’s time to look at the wider impact. What’s happening in the organization? Where did the issues arise from? This is where demanding honesty from all parties comes in because you need to understand the environment in which the project has been operating and look at the influences that have affected the project up to this point.
Here are a few common reasons why relationships get derailed, based on some of my experiences:
Poor expectation management
Was a Ferrari promised to your client and you’ve delivered a bicycle? Were the deliverables clear and understood by the customer? A lack of alignment is one of the easiest ways projects can be derailed—and cause a lot of frustration between end customers and the project team.
Sometimes it’s the wrong people are on the project. Either they’re not suited to the team or they don’t have the skills to perform the necessary tasks. As an escalation manager, you must have the authority to work with human resource managers to change or bring in different people to achieve project goals. If you don’t have this support or authority, then you need to have the sponsor’s support to train people. You also need to make sponsors aware of the additional time and money required and the impact on the project schedule and budget.
Core issues with the project itself
This comes down to how the project was started. Is the foundation of the project solid? Or are the aims of the project unclear/no longer relevant? Based on your findings, it may be that you need to have a difficult conversation with the sponsor/key stakeholders to stop a project that no longer fulfils the end goals or will be unable to achieve the objectives.
Once I fully understand what’s going on, I lay out the next steps, the timeframe of when things will happen, what they can expect/not expect and what I’m expecting from them. As escalation manager, I’m completely honest—about the issues we’re facing, about my role. what I’m able to achieve (and not able to achieve). And, more importantly, I demand everyone else is honest—some of the biggest issues that I’ve seen on troubled projects come from little white lies.
From there, I follow these steps:
Plan realistically. Make sure whatever you’re doing moving forward, you have a realistic plan—and that it was created with everyone’s full support and buy-in of tasks. This can take some time but it ensures everyone is aware of what needs to be done and on what timeline as well as the critical path/dependencies that exist between tasks/work packages/teams.
In this step, I also look at the working conditions of the teams and what’s needed for the project to be a success. In previous projects, I’ve take actions like these to ensure planning remained on track and realistic:
Build a stronger working relationship. In the projects I’ve supported, I try to have a catch-up/alignment session every month to ensure stakeholders are happy and understand where we currently are in the progress of the project. These check-ins allow me to read how the customer is doing or if there are further concerns that need to be addressed. As I build these stronger relationships, I make sure I reiterate what each member of the team can expect from me and also what’s realistic/feasible.
Deliver on what you promised. This is the outcome of your hard work! You’re delivering what was expected and communicating effectively so everyone signs off on the deliverables and the current status. It’s at this point in time that I hand over the project or it’s closed.
Every project and every relationship is different, but I’ve found communication and honesty are the core components to rebuilding a partnership with your teams and end customers.
What are your top tips for rebuilding a frayed relationship with a customer? What would you do differently? Let’s share knowledge in the comments below!
By Emily Luijbregts
During project retrospectives, one of the biggest issues I often hear is inadequate communication. Perhaps the project manager did not communicate correctly, at the right time, in the right manner—or simply did not communicate at all!
Excellent communication skills are critical for project success. In this blog, I’ll share six ways to improve your communication skills and become a better project manager in the process.
1. Understand your team and stakeholders.
Whenever I enter a new project or organization, I like to use a notepad to write down any relevant or important information about the team members with whom I’ll be working. This includes information about the location of the team, where the team members come from, if they have taken any personality tests, what type of resource they are, etc. I normally complete this by the first stage of team development, but I make sure that I add updates as needed or when new people join the team. This also includes stakeholder analysis. I make a note about where stakeholders are from, the best way of communicating with them and which language is the most appropriate.
2. Seek out collaborators.
How often do you have your communications reviewed by relevant experts or a second pair of eyes? In my projects, I’ll have a project subject matter expert (SME) or team lead review any technical communications before they’re released. I’ll also have a project coordinator or SME review other standard project communications to make sure that they’re clear, easily understood and relevant to the communication group or stakeholders receiving the communication.
3. Create a communication plan.
An effective communication plan can make or break a project. This plan does not need to include the type of communications that you’ll deliver during the project, but rather who needs to be informed and in what frequency. I also like to include other information, such as:
I also recommend sharing your communication plan with everyone on the project. I put ours in a shared document repository and ensure that everyone on the team knows where to find it.
At its core, a communication plan will also ensure that you’ve identified all of the relevant stakeholders within your project. Without identifying all potential stakeholders, you run the risk of miscommunication, misalignment and potential issues at a later point in the project.
When it comes to communication, clarity is key. It’s for this reason that I delegate specific communications to SMEs and technical leads. I want every communication that leaves my project to bring value to the receiver; therefore, it’s critical that anything remotely technical or outside of your knowledge area is handled by someone who understands the topic thoroughly and knows its current status. As the project manager, I then can support the preparation and delivery of the communication and ensure that it meets the best practices of communication delivery (as outlined in the communication plan).
5. Assess your delivery methods.
In your communication plan, you’ll set out what you will communicate and how you will do it. I recommend managing expectations specifically on the “how.” For example, you cannot afford to have individual calls with a dozen stakeholders delivering the same message, simply because they are in different time zones. To solve this, you can look at grouping regions together and having a maximum of two to three calls, depending on the location of your teams.
If you’re working with remote teams, consider the use of video or having a local leader give the presentation, if appropriate. For example, on a previous project we decided to have joint technical leads bridging three locations globally. Each lead would deliver their update in their time zone to the team (perhaps even in the local language) and ensure that the other leads were informed if anything important arose or needed to be added.
I also recommend regularly recording meetings for anyone who can’t attend and making these recordings available on the team’s shared site, so that anyone can review the communications at any time and provide feedback.
6. Learn from others.
Does your organization have a lessons learned repository? Utilize it to learn from past project mistakes and ensure that your project communications do not run into the same issues. I’ve found lessons learned repositories to be an invaluable source of information about the organization and the pitfalls to avoid.
Becoming an effective communicator is not easy. It takes practice, and you will make mistakes. But if you can devote time to understanding what you are communicating, ensuring that you communicate effectively and providing value to the project, you are on your way to becoming a successful project communicator.
How do you ensure that you’re a successful project communicator? Share your favorite tips in the comments below.