The essence of project work is uncertainty, and much as we say that we thrive on variety and change, our teams face multiple challenges on a daily basis. A certain amount of venting on the part of team members is bound to happen over a project’s lifetime, but when blowing off steam becomes the norm instead of the exception, and the majority of the complaining is purely negative, it can start to suck the energy out of the entire team.
While most project managers might feel this is the lowest priority of the issues they will have to manage each day, negativity is contagious, and one team member’s chronic complaining will eventually infect others with this behavior and will irritate the remaining ones – in both cases, productivity gets impacted.
Even more corrosive is when the project manager exhibits such behavior. While most project managers are likely to feel that they don’t possess sufficient formal authority over their projects or team members, they do wield enough influence that their negativity is likely to rub off and impact the productivity of the overall team.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that everyone on the project has to join hands and sing Kumbaya in spite of how well or poorly things are going. There ARE going to be issues, some of which cannot be resolved optimally, but what we can control is how we choose to handle these situations.
The book The No Complaining Rule is written around a parable to provide practical approaches on how to tackle the issue of workplace negativity, and while most of the techniques provided by the author are intended to be applied individually or at an organization-wide level, there’s no reason why they can’t be adapted for use at a team level as well.
One way is to institute a No Complaining day each week – team members (including you, Mr. or Mrs. Project Manager!) who complain without providing solutions or without qualifying complaints with positive thought or action are charged a nominal penalty. The paid amounts will be saved up and used to fund team celebrations or a charitable donation. Once the team is able to successfully handle one day a week without complaining, increase it to be one week each month, and so on.
If the team is already in the grip of negativity, it can be hard for someone who is as close to it as the project manager to identify, but if metrics such as work item completion velocity are being calculated and tracked on a regular basis, it should be possible to identify productivity declines. The project manager should also practice active listening with stakeholders or the customer to see if they are becoming keenly aware of the project being a never ending “whine & cheese” party. Finally, it may be worth inviting peer project managers to sit in on the occasional status meeting – not being directly involved they may be able to pick up on such issues.
To plagiarize (and misquote) a famous Jedi Master: Negativity is the path to the project dark side. Negativity leads to stress. Stress leads to reduced productivity. Reduced productivity leads to project failure.
(Note: Positive when I wrote this article in june 2013 on kbondale.wordpress.org I was. Yes, hrrmmm.)
We might assume that transparency should be a given when delivering value through our projects so why is it that the actions of teams or the stakeholders supporting delivery don't always demonstrate that basic hygiene factor? Transparency is so critical that the Scrum Guide lists it as one of its three pillars and it is similarly echoed in the reference materials for many other agile delivery methods as well as in PMI's Code of Ethics.
Transparency is a rising tide which lifts the attitudes of all stakeholders:
I wrote a few years back about the downsides of unfiltered transparency as this could generate unnecessary panic or encourage micro-management from our stakeholders, but responsible transparency is key to creating trust.
Responsible transparency is about providing the truth, warts and all, but ensuring that sufficient context gets provided so that our stakeholders' reactions to the truth are appropriate. Project teams have many tools and techniques available to them which can provide transparency about progress and impediments, but using these in isolation may not provide that context. For example, reviewing individual work items in a sprint backlog without also being aware of the sprint goal(s) identified by the Product Owner doesn't help a stakeholder see the forest for the trees. Similarly, trying to interpret a burn down or burn up chart without understanding the team's delivery approach or the contents of a sprint or release backlog might create the wrong perceptions.
So as you strive for transparency in your information radiators and other communication methods, ensure that you are providing the necessary color commentary to make the information meaningful.
The single most important ingredient in the recipe for success is transparency because transparency builds trust - Denise Morrison, (Former) CEO, Campbell Soup Company
I’ve written a few articles on the risk posed by resource availability to most knowledge-based projects, and I still feel that this is a frequent cause of schedule & budget overruns. Other common risk factors impacting projects include requirements clarity, technology uncertainties and organization change resistance. Finally, project priority is a major source of risk these days – the “star” project that receives funding and focus today could morph into the “dog” tomorrow that is starved of resources.
A more subtle risk factor, and yet one that can be equally pernicious has to do with that unique project role – the stakeholder. I was once told this definition for a stakeholder: “Anyone with the ability to sink your project”.
One tends to think of negative stakeholder influence as a common source of risk to construction or other highly visible external projects, but any moderately complex internal project could also possess multiple stakeholders with competing agendas.
To address this source of risk, the best response is thorough and regular stakeholder analysis. If you are not sure that you have identified all of your stakeholders, seek advice from a peer or mentor. Meet individually with your stakeholder representatives early on and reinforce these relationships throughout the lifecycle of your project. It may be naive to assume that you can satisfy the needs of all of your stakeholders, so your objective should be to manage the impacts of their influence on your project. If it is not possible to work towards a “win, win” situation, you may need to solicit assistance from your project sponsorship or other stakeholders.
Project teams working on high stress, aggressive time line (is there any other kind?) projects tend to focus on their customer or their project steering committees. This myopia can be fatal – stakeholder influence is perhaps the best example of Dr. Hillson’s definition for risk: “Uncertainty that matters”.
(Note: I wasn't blindsided when I wrote this article in January 2011 on kbondale.wordpress.com)
I'm midway through reading Choose Your WoW! from Scott W. Ambler and Mark Lines of the Disciplined Agile Consortium. While their 2012 reference book for Disciplined Agile Delivery provided guidance for teams interested in tailoring their delivery approaches, the new book delves much deeper into the key goals, decision points and options for those decision points. It also provides external references to inspire practitioners to venture down the rabbit holes for the practices they wish to explore further. The main content of the book comes in just under four hundred pages but given the volume of information provided, it shows that the authors have been practicing what they preach when it comes to minimally sufficient documentation!
Their book focuses on teams using adaptive lifecycles for delivering technology solutions but it would be still be helpful to address the needs of teams who are utilizing traditional approaches for delivering projects in other industries or domains.
What would the outcome have been if the volunteers who created the sixth edition of the PMBOK Guide had taken a similar approach? Yes, the current edition contains new sections with tailoring considerations but those are just scratching the surface of that critical topic.
Perhaps they would have realized that the current guide should have really been released as two separate documents. There is still a need for a PMBOK framework reference covering process groups, processes, inputs, outputs, tools and techniques, but much greater value would have been realized by practitioners in having detailed guidance for exploring the key goalposts and decision points taking into account the context of a given project and the culture of the organization they are working in.
This could be done using a decision tree approach similar to that used for Disciplined Agile but imagine how much fun it would have been if it was written like a Choose Your Own Adventure® book? Such a guide could help teams understand the options available to them while simultaneously exploring potential downstream implications of their decisions. Add in some cartoons illustrating key concepts and the Guide would no longer be considered a surefire cure for insomnia!
I’ve written previously about the need for a project manager to proactively plan for a smooth transition if someone else will be assuming the role on one of their projects. Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself taking over from a project manager who has followed some of those suggestions, it will make your life easier.
But often we don’t have that luxury.
When projects get into trouble, rightly or wrongly, the project manager may have been identified as a convenient sacrificial lamb and you might join the project after they have been expeditiously shown the door. Other times the individual might have just been moved to a different, higher priority project but they did not maintain a complete, accurate project control book or they may simply not have the time to help with your onboarding.
In such cases, what should you do?
Meet the sponsor
Even if there are documents such as a charter or project management plan, there’s no substitute for learning about the needs and wants of your sponsor as early as possible. Developing a productive, symbiotic relationship with this critical stakeholder will often make the difference between success and abject failure.
Make sure you take the time to understand what they expect from you from both a communications and expectation management perspective, but also gauge their willingness to support you when decisions, issues or risks have been escalated to their attention.
Meet the team
Recognize that the team will be experiencing the change churn of having lost a leader.
If the previous project manager was despised, you will bear some of that baggage and will want to ensure that you don’t get drawn into a comparison competition with your predecessor or having to defend the value of project management. On the other hand, if the team adored their project manager, you may face suspicion and resentment and will have to avoid the temptation to become defensive about why you were placed in the role.
Be curious, ask questions, but most important, strive to be a servant-leader, giving the team some time to grieve but also demonstrating your value by escalating or ideally removing any hurdles that have hampered their productivity.
Trust but verify current state
Status reports, feedback from the sponsor or the team might provide you with insights into the project’s state, but seek evidence that supports their assessment.
Identify recent milestones and confirm that different stakeholders agree that those have been successfully met. Once you understand what milestone is coming up, check with the sponsor and team to ensure that there is alignment towards its completion. Ask questions about the top three risks and issues. Check the financial health of the project with your finance partners to ensure the books are in good shape.
While a project plan might exist for your project, you should still create a personal onboarding plan reflecting the specific activities you will need to complete to be effective in your new role. Treat this role transition as you would any meaningful project – plan the work, and then work the plan!
(Note: this article was originally published to kbondale.wordpress.com in January 2017)