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.)
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)
I'm midway through Priya Parker's book The Art of Gathering and her insights into how to make an event a meaningful gathering rather than "just another boring meeting" are apropos to ceremonies. A common complaint many team members raise in the early days of an agile journey is that it feels like they are in too many meetings. This shows that they aren't perceiving the value of the ceremonies and, if these concerns aren't addressed quickly, the team members are likely to disengage.
One way to evaluate your ceremonies is to do a W5 assessment on them.
Without a shared understanding of the purpose for the ceremonies, misalignment of expectations and behaviors may emerge. It is critical that a newly formed team understands why each ceremony is needed, but as the team evolves, the purpose of each should be reviewed to ensure it remains relevant. One way to gauge this is to ask each team member to summarize what they believe the purpose of the ceremony to be in three words or less.
Once there is clarity on why, we need to confirm that the outcomes of ceremonies are being realized and are in line with the purpose for conducting the ceremonies. Poll team members on their perception of the effectiveness and efficiency of producing those outcomes.
A common challenge with agile ceremonies and most recurring events is that, over time, you might pick up a number of participants who "just want to observe" or "need to be kept in the loop". If everyone is needed, no one is needed. A self-disciplined, self-managing team will weed out those stakeholders who aren't required but will be equally diligent on ensuring the right participants are at each ceremony. For example, conducting a sprint review without adequate representation from those who will be consuming the outputs of the team is a waste of time. Who is also about the role each participant plays. While new teams might lean on the Scrum Master to facilitate most ceremonies, over time, this can become a shared responsibility, giving each team member a chance to develop their facilitation abilities.
It is a good practice to hold ceremonies at the same day and time but the timing that seemed ideal in earlier sprints may not suit all participants in later ones. It is also worth evaluating the duration of the ceremonies as they should be long enough to meet the purpose and achieve the expected outcomes and no longer. If certain team members are missing certain ceremonies, it is worth confirming whether the timing is still suitable for all participants.
Whether it is physical meeting rooms or virtual video conferences or collaboration environments, it is important to ensure that the location supports the purpose and approach and doesn't detract from it. In physical settings, this could be as simple as the arrangement of chairs around a table and the availability of white board space for spontaneous collaborative activity. Consider alternative environments for physical ceremonies. Could it be possible to conduct some in a more dynamic manner - perhaps as a walking meeting? In virtual sessions, this means ensuring that the tools provided (e.g. polls, whiteboards) are functional and everyone knows how to use them in advance of the ceremony.
How frequently ceremony reviews should take place will vary and one trigger for a health check might be to have team members vote every few weeks or every couple of sprints on how valuable they feel each ceremony is.
To paraphrase Chris Fussell "If your team is trying to be more agile, stop and think, 'Are my ceremonies actually productive, or are we merely having ceremonies for ceremonies' sake?'"
I was asked to facilitate a lessons learned session for a program team using a retrospective format. After the team had brainstormed, prioritized and discussed most of the challenges they had faced, it became clear to them that there were only a couple of root causes for most of the main pain points they had identified. Neither of those root causes was a true learning but rather they were just simple reminders of good practices to follow for large, complex programs. I then asked them the somewhat rhetorical question: "Remembering now what should have been done then, how will you ensure that this doesn't happen on a future program?"
A project team I've been working with has struggled with judging how many work items they can successfully complete within a sprint. In the retrospective for their last sprint, they identified a number of simple, effective ideas for resolving this chronic concern. Again, I challenged them with the same question: "You've come up with a great list of ideas, but how will you ensure that you actually act on those the next time you are sprint planning?"
Both of these experiences reminded me of how difficult it is to break habits.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg has written about the three part neurological loop governing habits which was discovered by MIT researchers: a cue, a routine and a reward.
In the project team's case, the routine has been to accept more work items than they can complete in a sprint even when historical evidence shows this tactic hasn't worked out well. The cue is that moment in the sprint planning ceremony when the team makes their sprint forecast. It's hard to say what the reward has been but perhaps it's the temporary high which comes when we take on a significant challenge as a team.
To break habits, we need to find a way to substitute a different routine for the old one and soliciting the help of a close, trusted colleague might be one way to do this.
The team could designate a single individual to come to the sprint planning ceremony with a stuffed pig or some other visual gag which represents gluttony. Then, when the team is about to forecast how much they will accept in the sprint, that team member could hold up the pig and say "Oink! Oink!" to remind all of them to be a little more conservative. While the team might not bask in the short term glow of having accepted a bloated sprint forecast, they will enjoy the much more rewarding experience during their sprint review when the product owner and other stakeholders congratulate them for improving their predictability.
Breaking habits is hard to do but by identifying cues and implementing good routines to swap in for the old ones, we can prevail.
A Definition of Ready (DoR) is an agreement established by some agile teams to help them assess if a given product backlog item can safely be accepted by the team to be worked on. It is not expected to be used as a gate but rather as guidance.
I frequently hear from teams who are frustrated with one or more of their ceremonies. There can be many reasons for such perceptions but some times the root cause relates more to what wasn't completed in advance rather than what actually transpired during the ceremony. This made me realize that there could be some benefit in inviting such teams to come up with a DoR for their agile ceremonies.
Depending on the method or framework you follow there are likely to be different events, so I will focus on the standard ceremonies as defined within the Scrum Guide.
Like all DoR's or Definitions of Done (DoD), the list above is only intended to generate ideas for your team and not to be adopted "as is" as context counts.
"The beginning is the most important part of the work." - Plato