Easy in theory, difficult in practice

by
My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

About this Blog

RSS

Recent Posts

Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

Personal development action planning starts with the "What?" and "Why?" before the "How?"

I, for one, welcome our new PM AI overlords

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

What are some of the underlying causes of ineffective project risk management?

Progress is the secret sauce of motivation...

I've written about many drivers of individual motivation. Receiving regular recognition (Early Saturday morning alliteration!), effective empowerment giving us autonomy over our work, having opportunities to improve our skills, belonging to a team where psychological safety is valued and feeling that our inner purpose is linked to the outer purpose for our projects are all important.

But the missing component from the above ingredients list is seeing frequent (ideally daily) evidence of the progress we are making through our work efforts.

In his last Pinkcast, Daniel Pink spoke about the perceived importance of demonstrable progress and referenced Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer's book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work

So what does this imply for project managers?

If your approach is to deliver a few, infrequent "big bang" changes rather than encouraging early and regular delivery of value, this may not support the progress principle. This is less of a concern with those projects involving tangible, visible outcomes. An engineering and construction team might be building a theatre so stakeholder value is only realized once the theatre has been fully built and turned over to its owners. Although this may not happen for months, at the end of each day on the job site the team members are able to see visible signs of the progress they've made. I believe that this is one of the motivators for the volunteers who will work at disaster sites clearing debris every day as they are able to incrementally see order returned to chaos.

But on those projects which will have intangible outcomes, this gets trickier. Assuming the context of these projects would support adaptive lifecycles, adopting such approaches should increase the likelihood of all team members seeing progress. A batched approach to processing work items implies that one skill set is highly engaged whereas others upstream or downstream are waiting. With a flow-based teaming approach, all team members should see visible evidence of the work they've completed. Sprint reviews and other similar ceremonies will provide structured product feedback and recognition from external stakeholders, but serve as motivational gravy rather than the main course.

Seeing is believing, but seeing is also motivating!

 

Posted on: October 13, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

Kim Scott's bestseller is normally read as a guide for managers but it provides equal value to the members of self-organized teams. While she details a number of useful models within the book, her main model which positions a culture of radical candor relative to others can provide a good basis for team improvement. The culture of the organization in which a team is formed will often dictate the default starting quadrant for interpersonal behavior.

In those companies where higher value is placed on playing nice rather than being effective or in those where conflict suppression is preferred to confrontation, team members may demonstrate behaviors consistent with Ruinous Empathy™. If a particular team member is constantly tardy for daily standups, rather than tackling the issue directly, other team members will internally stew but silently put up with it. Over time this will damage their relationships with that team member and will impact the synergy of the team.

Where the atmosphere of a company resembles a shark tank, Obnoxious Aggression™ might be the starting point. When that same team member shows up late once for a daily standup, they will be so thoroughly chewed out by one or more team members for having wasted time that the offender would be likely to set multiple redundant alarms to avoid ever being put through that particular wringer again! Feedback is provided in a timely manner when someone violates a team norm or isn't pulling their weight, but the method in which the message is delivered bruises egos and, over time, results in a culture of docile submission and low psychological safety.

If Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones is considered a role model, then teams might start by exhibiting Manipulative Insincerity™. The team member who shows up late to standups will eventually receive feedback but only indirectly as a result of overhearing grumbling from other team members around the water cooler or through unnecessary escalation to his or her functional manager. Such passive-aggressive behavior not only delays the time for receiving and acting on feedback but it also erodes trust and reduces collaboration within the team.

One approach to address such dysfunctional behavior is to use Kim's model during a retrospective. Team members could brainstorm specific actions they witnessed (or themselves performed) which fell into one of the above three quadrants as well as recognizing other actions which demonstrated radical candor. This could be used to help the team enhance their working agreements or to identify specific interpersonal improvements. The challenge is that the team members need to be self-aware and willing to suspend their default behavior patterns in their participation. A skilled agile lead may be needed to facilitate such an event.

Psychological safety is critical within high performing teams. Knowing that your peers have your back gives you the confidence to experiment, to express vulnerabilities, and to ask for help when you need it. But another critical ingredient for building a good team is to cultivate a culture of radical candor.

Posted on: September 22, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

The silver lining on the people management cloud of project-oriented structures

While the relative level of formal authority vested in a project manager is greater in project-oriented (formerly projectized) organization structures than in matrix ones, the downside of this authority is that the project manager will spend much more time on people management administrative activities such as performance evaluations, hiring and supporting their professional development. While this is important work, it doesn't directly relate to the management of their projects and they might perceive it as a distraction.

In addition, in those organizations which are purely project-oriented (i.e. everything they do is project work with no functional or matrix structures to be found elsewhere within their walls), when projects end, if the team members who were contributing to them cannot be deployed to different projects then they may find themselves out of a job which is likely to stress their project managers even more at the very time when they are trying to line up other projects for themselves.

But there is a silver lining to this people management cloud.

Having these responsibilities will force the project manager to learn about the hopes, dreams and career aspirations of their direct reports. This should provide them with a greater ability to enable them to connect the team members' individual purposes to the success objectives of the project. They will also be better positioned to understand the competencies over which their staff wish to gain mastery which they can use to identify opportunities for personal development for these team members. Finally, even as project managers working in matrix structures will need to learn how to effective delegate, empowering their staff to work with autonomy is even more critical when there is a formal reporting relationship in place.

Project managers in project-oriented organizations might chafe at the additional responsibilities they have to shoulder, but these also give them more power to inspire their team members.

Posted on: August 11, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

What challenges do distributed teams pose to others?

Face-to-face communication around a shared modeling surface such as a whiteboard is considered to be a highly effective method of creating shared understanding. When team members are distributed, collaboration tools can help with reducing misunderstandings and miscommunications between team members but can't fully eliminate those.

But what about the impacts of distribution on other roles such as agile leads or senior stakeholders?

To an outsider, an agile lead's visible contribution in the early stages of team formation might be the facilitation of agile ceremonies but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. If the team is maturing, any team member should be able to run ceremonies. The greater value brought by an agile lead in such cases occurs outside of ceremonies, through actions such as suggesting opportunities for increased collaboration between team members, coaching individual team members and working with key stakeholders outside of the team.

With co-located teams, agile leads often identify coaching opportunities osmotically by just being present with the team. A casual comment might spur an agile lead to have a conversation which might avoid hours of unnecessary work. But with distributed teams, unless the agile lead is plugged into all the conversations taking place between team members and with external stakeholders, there is an increased likelihood of missing a coaching moment or being unable to help the team to address a blocker in a timely manner.

Persistent group chat tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams can help the agile lead to be somewhat aware of what's going on, but it is rare that all members of a team would conduct all of their interactions through these platforms. Online work management tools such as JIRA or Rally can capture significant updates for the team's work items, but it is rare that an agile lead will review all changes to those work items even if team members have been diligent about regularly updating them.

In such cases, eliminating or reducing the level of multitasking will be critical as the impacts of context switching are compounded with distributed team members.

With senior stakeholders, even if good information radiators have been constructed and published, lacking in-person access to the team might increase the number of ad hoc requests for updates as there is less opportunity for them to observe how the work is being done. It might also put a greater emphasis on regular showcases or frequent product reviews as the primary method of soliciting product feedback rather than the preferred ability to drop by and see the latest build as the need arises. This might increase the time it takes these stakeholders to begin to trust the team's capabilities. Similarly, because  team members won't have regular in-person contact with these senior stakeholders, they may also take more time to start to trust them. Bringing the team together with key senior stakeholders on a periodic basis is one way to address these concerns, but this can be an expensive proposition.

With ever increasing needs to tap into dispersed skill sets and to support flexible working arrangements for team members, distributed teaming is here to stay. Acknowledging that more effort will need to be spent overcoming distance challenges is an important step to managing expectations with this way of working.

Posted on: August 04, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

What can we do when a team member isn't pulling their weight?

One of the learners in a class I taught asked me how self-organizing teams would handle the situation where a single team member is not performing a fair share of the work.

In a traditional, push-based work assignment model, this issue can also occur. Usually whoever has pushed the work onto the low performer will follow up with them in a timely manner and take direct steps to ensure that performance improves, the work gets re-balanced or the team member is replaced.

But with a pull-based approach where individual team members sign up for work items as capacity frees up and where the focus is on how much is getting completed by the team as a whole, the concern is that someone could take advantage of this by letting their peers take on the more challenging work items leaving them with a relatively lighter work load. From the outside, it would appear that the work is getting done but the contribution imbalance will be less evident.

On a mature self-organized team this is not likely to be an ongoing concern. Team members recognize the importance of demonstrating courage and showing respect for the team and will exert the necessary social pressure on the low performer so that they will either feel embarrassed and start to improve or will be transferred out of the team. If the team uses agile ceremonies such as sprint planning, daily standups or retrospectives, these provide an opportunity to provide feedback with radical candor to the low performer.

But on those teams which are relatively new to working in this manner, the team members might not possess the confidence to openly discuss or challenge such dysfunctions. Passive aggressive behavior might occur such as remaining silent during a retrospective and complaining around the water cooler afterwards.

In such cases, the agile lead or Scrum Master might need to get involved to eliminate the impediment. This intervention could start in a subtle manner such as asking the individual at a daily standup if they feel comfortable with their workload for the day compared with their team members, or "seeding" the conversation during a retrospective when the topic turns to what could be improved. They might encourage other team members to ask the individual to give them a hand with their work items or to conduct a non-solo work experiment (e.g. pair programming).

If this soft approach doesn't work, the Scrum Master may have to more drastic steps such as confronting the individual one-on-one, speaking with their manager or some other type of escalation.

Deferring decision making to the Last Responsible Moment is a lean principle. While a Scrum Master shouldn't intervene if the rest of the team can address an issue for themselves, they should have the judgment to know when they will need to take a more direct approach.

 

Posted on: July 28, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)
ADVERTISEMENTS

"Next week there can't be any crisis. My schedule is already full."

- Henry Kissinger

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsors

Vendor Events

See all Vendor Events