With the pandemic forcing so many project teams to work from home, no doubt you're holding tons of virtual meetings. But are you making the most of them?
Working from home (or WFH) is quickly becoming "the new normal." The COVID-19 pandemic kicked the WFH movement into high gear, and many experts believe it will continue long after the crisis has passed. But before we can optimize this new way of working, we're all going to have to get proficient at one of the biggest work-from-home fundamentals: the virtual meeting.
"Remote meetings are inherently different from in-person meetings," says Howard Tiersky, coauthor along with Heidi Wisbach of Impactful Online Meetings: How to Run Polished Virtual Working Sessions That Are Engaging and Effective. "If you're not used to running them, you're going to make tons of mistakes. And those mistakes can have major ramifications in terms of how well people perform once they log off and get back to work."
The good news is that well-run online meetings can be extremely powerful, says Tiersky. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, online meetings can be even more effective than in-person meetings when done right. But first you need to be aware of what not to do. Tiersky identifies five common mistakes made in virtual meetings:
1. Neglecting one (or more) of the "big five" success keys of online meetings. If you are seeking to bring people together to share information, come up with solutions, make decisions, coordinate activities, and/or socialize, you will be successful if you:
"If you do all of these correctly, you will have high-impact online meetings," Tiersky says. "If you don't, there's going to be a lot of awkwardness and inefficiency. Worse, bad meetings can lead to bad workplace performance, which is the last thing any of us need right now."
2. Holding voice calls instead of videoconferences. When everyone has their cameras on, you can expect a significant improvement in the effectiveness of online meetings. This keeps people engaged because they know that what they're doing is visible to everyone else. They're far less likely to multi-task, which is one of the greatest obstacles to audience engagement.
3. Failing to be strategic about sequencing. The first item on your meeting agenda should be a restatement of the purpose of the meeting. After that, strategize on the sequence of your activities. For example:
4. Not giving people an active role. It's possible for one person to present content, facilitate questions, ensure the meeting stays on time, and take notes, but why? Seek to distribute the roles of facilitator (responsible for running the agenda), presenter (responsible for sharing specific units of content), timekeeper (watches the clock and alerts facilitators and presenters how to adjust their speed and content), and the notetaker (documents the meeting) among the participants.
"When you give participants something to do, you prevent them from being passive listeners or webinar watchers," Tiersky says. "When people have an active role, they are far, far more attentive and engaged."
5. Failing to take advantage of breakouts. In most meetings of more than eight people, usually most of the talking is done by just five to seven participants. This is one reason why during live workshops Tiersky often breaks larger groups into breakout teams, so they can come up with ideas, work on prioritization, action planning—whatever the work is—in smaller groups and then come back to the larger group and report on the work they did. (Several of the major online meeting platforms including Zoom and Google Hangouts now offer breakouts.)
"We give each team clear instructions for the work they are to do, in writing, and then usually give them a small amount of time to do it, like 20 to 40 minutes," he says. "A compressed time frame forces the group to organize quickly; get to work; and focus on progress, not process or perfection. I've been amazed over the years that sometimes when clear instructions, a small team, and a tight time frame are combined like that, you get work done in a half hour that might have taken days, weeks, or months if done 'the usual way.'"
These are just a few of the mistakes people regularly make. There are plenty more. The good news is most of these are easy enough to correct once you realize you're making them.
"When done correctly, online meetings are an incredibly powerful method of enabling collaborative work," Tiersky says. "It's worth investing a bit of time and effort in learning how to maximize them. Frankly, they have the potential to move the needle for your business, and right now, this is more important than it's ever been."
In an age when nuanced discussion gets lost or distorted by Twitter rants and Facebook echo chambers, is anyone listening to anyone anymore?
Even in the world of project management, where communication skills are highly valued, listening skills don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. But listening is foundational to meaningful communication, and as important as speaking or PowerPointing when it comes to effective collaboration and teamwork.
“Listening is how we demonstrate that the conversation—and the other person—matters,” says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “Listening harnesses our attention and sends the message that this person and this interaction count.”
And something remarkable frequently happens when we stop talking and listen: We learn amazing things about the people we work with.
But for a meaningful exchange to take place, actual listening, not just partial listening, is required. We have to let people talk, without interruption, and give them our precious attention. It’s a paradox of the digital age that we are all so busy sending messages that we feel like there’s no need to listen. For better conversations, make listening a priority.
Of course, when we’re constantly distracted or stressed, it’s difficult to listen, let alone to consider another perspective. But that failure is a major opportunity lost, because perspective-taking provides a host of important conversational benefits: It increases the odds of understanding, it shows respect, it keeps our minds open, and it boosts the chances that we will discover common ground.
“When we make it a habit to consider the other person’s perspective, it opens up a window where common goals and shared understanding often emerge,” Tumlin says. “And even when they don’t, people know when you are seriously considering their perspective and it encourages the building of a cornerstone of strong relationships: trust.”
Yes, listening and considering the other person’s perspective will work wonders to improve our conversations and strengthen our relationships. But something quite beneficial often happens when these two communication behaviors become habits: Good ideas start bubbling up all around us.
“We’re often so busy pushing out messages that we completely miss good ideas that waltz right up to us,” Tumlin says. “It’s true that not all ideas are good ideas, but intentional listening and perspective-taking sort out most of the shaky ideas from the valuable ones.”
When we give people our undivided attention and make a serious attempt to understand their point of view, we are often rewarded with the answer to a longstanding problem, with a key piece of information we need to resolve an issue, or with a better way of doing things that we hadn’t considered.
“It doesn’t require a lot of undivided attention to build and maintain strong relationships, but it does require some undivided attention. Good communication equals good relationships equals good life. And that’s why being fully present in our conversations matters so much.”
Cents and Sensibility
A hard line on the bottom line means projects better show value. But ROI can be spelled many ways.
No business goes to market with a product or service that it isn't confident will justify the time and resources spent developing it. Should project selection be any different? Most organizations answer with a resounding "No!" Understandably, they want to focus on initiatives that promise a solid return on investment (ROI). Indeed, for executives and customers—the stakeholders who ultimately decide the fate of projects—it sometimes seems that R-O-I are the only letters in the alphabet.
But making ROI the “Holy Grail” of project valuation and selection can backfire. A project's value is driven by many factors, and many of them can't be measured, or even imagined, by ROI alone. The challenge is to take into account all the important value drivers for ongoing and future projects.
Generally stated as the benefit divided by the cost, ROI seems straightforward enough. But simplified formulas are part of a complicated problem. Project ROI equations should consider many factors, including overall impact on the organization. ROI viewed at the departmental level may look great or disastrous, but the impact on other departments may be just the opposite, depending on what the project delivers.
In some industries, companies that seek rapid paybacks may tend to avoid long-term projects with big budgets. But exclusive emphasis on quick ROI can be unhealthyin the long run. By focusing solely on an ROI percentage calculation and ignoring qualitative metrics, companies shy away from projects that can lead to significant business advantages down the road.
It can be said, some projects run the business, some projects extend the business, and some projects transform the business. Because the latter group of projects are strategic in nature, they are often the “fuzziest” to assess, and they don't stand up well in ROI comparisons to easily quantifiable projects with clear numeric results. Unfortunately, when taken at face value, these projects tend to fall down the project selection list at an organization's own peril.
At the team level, an overemphasis on ROI can often negatively impact project management behavior as much as it does decision-making at the executive level. During project execution, team members are often pushed, or take it upon themselves, to act to improve ROI. Lacking clear understanding of the project's alignment with business goals, they can often have the opposite effect.
For example, a team may cut corners in attempts to reduce costs or decrease implementation time. These actions, in turn, can cause project risks to escalate. And when ROI is held over the head of project teams without a clear explanation of how it relates to the big picture, projects may actually lose value as team members miss or ignore opportunities to improve quality.
Just as organizations need to take many factors into account when selecting projects, the question of value must be revisited and re-evaluated during project execution. Project management performed in an "ROI vacuum" can hurt team morale, productivity and creativity-all human factors that contribute directly to project value.
Perhaps the greatest attraction to ROI is also its greatest myth—that ROI is all about hard numbers and, thus, objectivity. But the fact is, how an ROI study is conducted will determine what it finds. Even more subjectively: Who conducts and presents a particular ROI analysis will often influence the ROI result.
Project sponsors, for example, will often "back into" an ROI figure to arrive at a number they believe management needs to see in order to approve the project. A savvy proponent of a project can show what appears to be an acceptable ROI, but under scrutiny, the score may lack sufficient validity.
On the other side of the coin, upper management may mandate the use of complex or unrealistic ROI equations in order to have a means to cancel or reject projects that may deliver value but do not have political support for whatever reason.
Management must consider more than ROI scores, starting with the data's relevance—from collection methods and sample size, to variables that were or weren't included. Otherwise, they won't understand what the ROI really means.
For the ROI equation to be reliable, estimated costs and benefits must be scrutinized through comparison studies and take into account all possible issues, be they changing market conditions, corporate cultures or cost of capital. These factors may help to defend or dispute the ROI results, but they certainly ensure more accuracy.
In addition, project managers and stakeholders should never forget or underestimate the effectiveness of applying common sense to support a project worth defending, or to throw water on an ROI figure arrived at by incomplete or insincere means.
And post-project reviews should be used to get a final word on the ROI of every project. It is extremely important to revisit a project and evaluate the actual costs and benefits associated with projects. In addition to identifying lessons learned and areas for improvement, reviews show the accuracy of project estimates, paving the way for better ROI forecasting in the future.
New technologies, shifting business needs, flexible delivery approaches and the move to The Project Economy—all of these things are changing the profession of project management. And that shift is only going to accelerate in 2020.
In a recent episode of Projectified with hosts Tegan Jones and Stephen Maye, project and program management leaders shared their thoughts on emerging trends in the world of projects. Here are some edited highlights:
“I believe the future’s really bright for project and program managers,” said Narasimha Acharya, assistant director in the client technology practice at Ernst & Young in Atlanta. “But the role, the knowledge, the experience that we need to be successful is, of course, changing. And it will continue to change.”
But Palladino said we shouldn’t get overwhelmed by the pace of change and what it may or may not bring down the road. Instead, we should practice curiosity in the here and now. And an agile mindset helps, starting with the question: “What’s that one little thing we can do to improve what we’re doing?”
“And if we can build that [curiosity] into our lives, we build that into the way that we work, we incrementally keep looking for different opportunities to improve and discover new ideas and different ways of working,” Palladino said.
Developing a habit of curiosity can help you prepare for what’s ahead. And as things change, project managers will need new skills, including how they use data, said Fernando Antonio Oliveira, the E2 program director for Embraer in São José dos Campos, Brazil.
“We see a lot of change in the way we treat data, the way we collect data, the way we understand how the project or program is going,” Oliveira said. This data-centric approach is driven in large part by artificial intelligence (AI) and other tools that can help project managers better anticipate and prevent risks, rather than reacting to them after they happen, he added.
Kaustuv Bagchi, head of India operations for oil and gas offshore projects for LT Hydrocarbon Engineering in Mumbai, India, said he hopes disruptive technology like AI will help new project managers be more efficient and allow them to focus on different skills.
“Earlier the focus was on knowledge and experience; now…we have technology to support project management to an extent that experience is getting digitized, so the focus is going to be moving from knowledge to application of technology, and application of knowledge, and constant innovation.”
As a new generation enters the workplace, new approaches and ways of thinking are changing and challenging traditional project management approaches as well.
Olivier Schmitt, CEO of The Project Group France SAS in Lyon, said he sees organizations struggling to integrate those new points of view.
“The conflict at the moment in [many] organizations is it’s moving very fast at the delivery level, and it’s still very conservative at the top management level, which makes a real problem in decision-making.”
No doubt, it’s going to be a vastly different world for the next generation of project leaders. In addition to becoming comfortable with new technologies, we also will need to be OK with ambiguity, Palladino said.
“Life isn’t crisp and clear, the future’s not crisp and clear,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with those ambiguities, and we have to figure out a way to change our thinking that it’s not just about finding the right answer, it’s finding an answer, and that’s okay, let’s develop it. Let’s further explore it and improve it and continually enhance it.”
Handling ambiguity is clearly a needed skill—and Maye noted that Deloitte recently found that leading through complexity and ambiguity was the top skill needed for today’s (and tomorrow’s) leaders.
What do you think?
One misconception many new project managers bring to their role is a belief (or is it a hope?) that a particular methodology, the latest tool or a popular template will bring them success in their work.
It’s understandable, but it’s a misguided, often doomed way of thinking about your very critical role.
Focusing exclusively on processes or systems is dangerous because it could mean other equally important factors in your project’s success are being relegated to bit players, if not swept off the stage entirely.
The fact is, there will always be plenty of rules and requirements that tell you what to do. The best project managers always allow room for asking why and how.
That’s not to suggest project management fundamentals aren’t important. But once you’ve moved out of the classroom and into the world of personalities and problems, projects quickly become more than budgeting and scheduling.
Methodologies don’t complete projects, teams and individuals do. That’s where leadership skills are so important, and yet they still get labeled as soft—as if the ability to resolve conflicts, influence team members and convince stakeholders isn’t hard!
This kind of leadership requires credibility—along with intuition and decision-making, instinct and risk-taking. These qualities might be considered intangibles, but they can and quite often do make the difference between a project that bogs down as soon as it encounters its first crisis, and a project that nimbly navigates those choppy waters until is delivers as promised.
So that’s why you should make your credibility a priority — and manage it as your most important project of all!