Individuality Matters On Diverse Teams – Why Project Managers May Need To Leave Their Pre-Conceived Ideas At The Door

Kathleen Booker

Imagine that you are a project manager holding the kick-off meeting for a new software deployment that is being rolled out to multiple distribution facilities.

You look around, scanning the groups on the conferencing monitors and in the room, taking note of the generations and functional areas represented. You nod your head in approval that you have built a solidly diverse team, one that will lift the project from a plan to a fully functioning new system in a matter of months.

Managing the team will be more complex than project teams you have led in the past. It has been a few years since you last led such a large implementation project involving not only your company but also a handful of consultants and the vendor’s integration team. Over the past years, your company has created new jobs, new positions, and hired people fresh out of college and some from different industries who have many years of experience in operations and supply chain fields. The core teams you have worked with in the past have evolved. You are working with a larger multi-generational group with a much deeper breadth of experience than you ever have.

As a strong project manager, you know that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to project management.

Each project, each project team, each individual is different. Balancing how you communicate and manage each team member, each stakeholder, will be critical to project success.

I will admit that as a project manager I experienced a learning curve when it came to diversifying communications to suit team members. When I first started leading teams to get something done, it was not called project management (at least not in my company thirty-plus years ago) and there was no insight into dealing with individuals as individuals.

You were given something to do by your supervisor, found someone who could help you get it done if it wasn’t something you could do alone, and then reported back to your supervisor that the task was complete. Workers were workers and everyone was pretty much treated the same (everything had to be fair and equitable).

It was not until years later that formal project management was introduced to us, and I found the structure and details fascinating. Yes, I am a detail-oriented person who loves structure around meetings and tasks and goals and everything in-between.

Remember that HOW you communicate is as important as WHAT you communicate.

Most, if not all, of us have been through some form of personality testing and/or training (think Myers-Brigg). One of my favorites, one which focuses on conscious and unconscious motivators, provides outstanding (my opinion) insight in how to approach people. For example, if you know someone who wants balance and harmony, someone who is always trying to keep peace between all team members and stakeholders, bluntly telling them that they fell short on meeting a milestone could devastate that person.

Instead, you need to let her/him know that s/he has been working hard, doing a good job, but needs to focus on whatever it is that is needed to complete the task. Ask what you can do to help. If the person is a matter-of-fact, detailed and perfectionist type, ask what is causing the delay and work with them to get back on track because chances are s/he is already beating her/himself up over missing the deadline. Ask what you can do to help.

Always, always ask what you can do to help. The sooner, the better.

Remember that each person you work with is an individual with specific needs, motivators, experience, and has background life noise that can change from day to day. Every day is a new day that can bring a slightly different version of a person into the workplace. As a project manager, you need to be cognizant of the “temperature” of the team and who may need what from you.

Those running at a fever pitch could experience burnout, so work with them to make sure their focus is balanced with other non-project related tasks and that they are not taking on more than is necessary. Those that are falling behind may need a one-on-one meeting to help identify the issues and (hopefully) meet the milestone.

Your experiences, methods, and motivators are probably vastly different from your teams’. Realize it, get to know your team members, and treat them as the individuals they are in order to find success in your projects.

View the full story here… projecttimes.com

How to Write Status Reports that are Worth Reading

Andy Silber

Status reports are a critical part of project management. We all write them, but hardly anyone reads them. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a stakeholder claim to not know something that was in a status report…on the front page…in bold…with arrows pointing at it saying, “This is very important.”

Okay, that last bit was an exaggeration, but the rest wasn’t.

I once had a client who refused to pay a bill because he “didn’t know what we were doing.” After reviewing months of status reports, he agreed to pay the bill.

There are some stakeholders who want to be involved in every decision, to know what everyone is doing and why. There are others who just want to know what, but don’t care about why. Some are obsessed with dates; others with dollars.  Some like written reports; others prefer phone calls. You can’t do meaningful project reporting without understanding what motivates your stakeholders.

In your meetings with the stakeholders, listen to what they care about and make sure your reports cover those issues. Asking is useful but listening to their questions often gives a better indication of their concerns than their answers. And be prepared for their focus to change.

I once had a customer that started out caring only about schedule and halfway through shifted their focus to cost, possibly because someone above them on the food-chain started caring about that.

If your stakeholders prefer verbal updates, that’s fine, but you still need to put something in writing in case there’s a disagreement later. That might be a full written report that you review over the phone (preferred) or it can be meeting minutes that you send to your stakeholder immediately afterwards.

One reason status reports are often not valued is that they sometimes aren’t actionable. As a PM reporting on the state of your project, think about the actions you think should be taken and what information your stakeholders will need to justify that action.

For instance, if you’ve discovered a new risk, and you’re considering your mitigation options, your stakeholder might need to approve these mitigations. You’ll want them to understand well what’s going on before you approve it. If you need support from another team that will require re-assigning resources, the stakeholders should be alerted to the when and why of that in advance.

This is probably the most important part of project reporting. There’s lots of information that you might want included, but you need to separate what your stakeholder has to know, from what you want them to know or what they want to know.

There should be a section that’s above the fold on the front page that if they just read that, they would know everything that’s critical. The rest of the report can contain more details or less important issues. If you’re emailing out your status reports as a separate document, then paste this critical information into the email. That way they can see the most important information even if they don’t open the document (as unfortunately will often be the case).

Delivering your reports on the same day of the week that look the same every time helps your stakeholders efficiently absorb the information. You don’t want them to scratch their heads ever week to figure out “what does this mean” or “where is the budget status that I care about.” A good status report will not solve the problem of an unengaged stakeholder, but if you’re doing your job well they might start to look forward to your weekly updates!

Sourceliquidplanner.com

The PM Skills You Can Forget About (And the Ones You Really Need to Know)

Elizabeth Harrin

I hear from project managers every week who aren’t sure what skills they should be building on. So much of what you might have read about online or in project management books, or even be taught on training courses, is simply not aligned the skills we need to use every day.

The way we do project management has evolved. We have better technology, broader job roles, and flatter organization structures. The last 15 years has seen huge changes in business models. We need to make sure that the skills we spend our valuable training dollars on are the right ones.

That’s not to say that project management training is pointless. Courses, coaches, blogs, and websites try to give us a rounded view of what project managers need, and some skills and tools do still have value in some situations. But if you aren’t in those situations, personally, I wouldn’t waste time developing my abilities in those areas.

In this article I’ll look at 5 project management techniques, processes and skills that you will no doubt have heard mentioned time and time again. I’ll give you my view on whether it is something worth spending your time on so you can best develop your professional skills in the direction that makes most sense for you.

I remember learning how to calculate the project’s critical path by hand using forward pass and backward pass calculations. And that was on a training course quite recently.

However, in real life, I have never known a project manager to work any of that stuff out with a pen and paper. It’s not practical. Today, our project schedules can run to hundreds of lines, if not thousands. Manually being able to calculate your critical path would take so long that your schedule would be out of date before you’d finished.

Having said that, the critical path itself is a very useful tool on projects. It shows the links between the tasks with no float, or ability to slip, so it’s the shortest possible time the project can be completed in.

I get that learning the math behind the critical path can help you understand what you are seeing. Project management software can work out the critical path efficiently, and keep it up to date when tasks change. You should know how to make the software show you the critical path, what the critical path is and how you can use it, but it isn’t important to be able to do the math yourself.

No requirement to know how to calculate it manually, but you must understand what a critical path is and how to use it on your project.

All projects involve working with people. Those people have opinions on what should be done, how it should be done, and what the deliverables from the project should be. Those people are your stakeholders.

In project-land today, we seem to have more stakeholders on projects than in the past. Perhaps it is because we have a better understanding of who is affected by a project. But I think it’s more likely to be that business systems today are far more integrated, lean and systemized than ever before. The pace of change remains fast, and that means we’re working with stakeholders on a compressed schedule.

The work we do touches more people and has more impact.

Because of that, stakeholder management has evolved somewhat. Today, you’re more likely to hear people in project management circles refer to it as stakeholder engagement. We’ve moved on from the idea that a few impact and influence grids can actively manage other people’s behavior.

The model of working with stakeholders today is more around how we engage people to support the project’s goals and use influencing, negotiating, teamwork and conflict management to effectively get work done through others.

Whatever you want to call it, the whole process is still important for the successful delivery of projects.

Not knowing how your tech works is a surefire way to be the least productive and successful member for the team.

Earned Value Analysis (EVA) is a way of measuring a project’s progress and performance against time and budget targets. It is known as a hugely powerful tool, but one that takes some set up. You need accurate data in to get useful results out, and interpreting the data involves a learning curve.

It’s considered an advanced technique in many project management circles and there are millions of projects run successfully around the world without it. However, some construction, industrial, and government projects especially in, for example, the defense industry, wouldn’t be able to function without the governance and oversight that EVA provides.

The jury is still out! Depends on your industry and the types of project you do.

Resource leveling is the process of making sure that your project resources are not overstretched with work. For example, an individual can’t physically take on 3 tasks, each of 8 hours, on the same day, just because you’ve popped those figures into your project schedule. They will need 3 days to do the work.

That’s a relatively straightforward example, but when you are balancing multiple projects, multiple team members, multiple tasks and priorities that always seem to shift about, getting your resources used optimally can be a challenge.

It’s so important to get this right because underutilized team members are a drain on your resources: your business is more profitable and efficient if they are being used on project work. And over-utilized resources burn out.

These days, intelligent project management tools incorporate resource leveling capabilities into the system, so tasks are automatically balanced as they are assigned to each team member.

No requirement to know how to work it out, but you must understand how to interpret your project management resource reports to act on the data and make changes accordingly.

View the full story here… liquidplanner.com

Do You Object to Networking?

Sue Maitland

In fact, some people would prefer a trip to the dentist rather than going to a networking event and I used to be one of those people.

I’ve now learned to overcome my objections by reframing what networking really is all about. Now I’ve learned to love networking and I frequently share my passion with others in talks and workshops.

In this article I’ll share the 5 most common reasons people have shared with me to explain why they object to networking and my tips to help you overcome those objections.

If you’re an introvert, or a naturally shy person, networking events can be scary.

You may feel awkward and it can appear that everyone else knows other people and you don’t know anyone. You can sometimes find yourself standing all by yourself at the edge of the room wishing the ground would open up and swallow you or you may even turn right around and leave before the event even starts.

How to overcome this objection: Remind yourself that vast majority of people feel at least a little uncomfortable with networking and that includes the extroverts. Plan ahead and have some conversation starters ready or simply smile and ask “May I join you” to an individual or a group of people you’d like to talk to. Even better, find someone who’s all alone and looking lost, smile and ask if you can join them. They’ll be really grateful that you reached out and they could be a great connection for you.

I used to think there were many more important things for me to be doing than networking and sometimes I was just too tired to consider going to a networking event at the end of the workday. If you haven’t thought strategically about where you go to network, some events can feel like a waste of time, although personally I now find that I take something of value away from every interaction with another person. If you go with the mindset that you really don’t want to be there and there is nothing of value for you, this is exactly what you will experience.

How to overcome this objection: Stop worrying about impressing others and never waste time and energy comparing yourself to others.

We are each unique individuals and we bring our own set of skills, experience and passion to this world. Go to each event with a curious mind and focus on learning from others rather than talking about yourself and impressing them with your accomplishments. Be genuinely curious and listen and respond to what others are saying – everyone enjoys talking to an active listener and you can learn from other people. It’s also important to have prepared a succinct answer this invitation “So tell me a little about yourself”, which you’ll be sure to be asked after you’ve been such an attentive listener.

What you can do instead: Get comfortable with just being yourself. Take time to get into a positive mindset before the event. Remind yourself that there are many possibilities for you to make good connections, take a couple of deep breaths and smile as you enter the room. You’re not supposed to make great connections with everyone you meet. We’re all different and with some of the people you meet, you’ll know instantly that you feel comfortable with them and with some others you won’t and that’s OK.

It’s true that sometimes you’ll meet a very unsophisticated networker who thinks they have permission to monopolize you and try to sell you on whatever product, service or other agenda they may be pushing. Or they’re one of those people who are clearly putting on an act and not being authentic. While this happens rarely, it can be challenging and it’s best to have a strategy to extricate yourself from the conversation if that happens.

Learning to network effectively and authentically can enhance both your personal and professional life. It helps to build your confidence and your knowledge base and can sometimes lead to life long friendships or business relationships.

 

View the full story here… projecttimes.com

The Trouble with Methodologies and Why Frameworks are Better

Laura Copas and Steve Sewell (Change Troops)

At Change Troops we’ve noticed projects, programmes and change initiatives becoming increasingly complex, and the biggest threat to their success is methodologies.

Methodologies are everywhere.  They bring with them the enticing promise of an easy way to make organisational or personal change, if only you follow the prescribed route.

Methodologies are the WMDs (Weapons of Mass Delusion) of our industry, enticing people into believing that change has a ‘Silver Bullet’, a secret that unlocks some magic.

However, cooking utensils and ingredients rarely have a view on how recipes should be done! As soon as the chef gets into the kitchen – even a very experienced chef – the human factor begins to change things. Humans have the ability to impact on the success of any initiative. Think about what happens to a soufflé if different people try to cook one using the same instructions!

The soufflé problem happens in exactly the same way on projects. When people get involved, stuff happens in a more unpredictable way.

Views and perspectives are important in anything involving people. And projects involve people. It’s people who do the tasks and make the decisions. Their skills, capabilities, likes, dislikes, habits, behaviours and many more factors all have the ability to change the direction or outcome of a project.

In our projects, programmes and change initiatives, the really ‘hard to do things’ are changing habits, behaviours and culture.

We know from collective experience that this is complex and needs energy and resilience to achieve.

A framework is a structure underlying a system, concept or text.

We would go further, suggesting that for projects and change initiatives that these structures are underpinned by principles.

A framework as a structure doesn’t describe the specific activities that you do, rather it frames specific activities and is built on key principles.

The evidence suggests that he has a framework, a structure that helps prepare and train for matches, the formations that the players use on the pitch, all based on a set of principles.

These frameworks are adapted over time, driven by learning and evaluation. The specific activities change depending upon the capabilities, context and task at hand.

There is a huge difference between the how the players will play against, say Brazil and Finland, but the preparation and training framework will be the same.

It is the same for change initiatives. The variation in activities is similar when presented with different challenges. For instance, a new head office building will have different challenges to a project that aims to integrate technologies across multiple organisations.

Even if you are a project manager involved with the construction of the Head Office building, which, at face value may seem simple and lacking in the kind of complexity we are talking about.

However, even this project would have its fair share of human factors impact on things like purpose, funding, design, problem solving during construction and deciding whose office has the biggest window with a view.

It is our strong belief at @changetroops, developed after many years of experience and research, that ‘How Change Happens, Matters’.

Change is hard. Working with the values, habits and behaviours of people needs careful thought, resilience and full attention.

Often this ends up looking like people being puzzled about by why their method isn’t working and why won’t everyone just listen.

Frameworks are the answer. They provide structure whilst allowing flexibility depending on the emerging situation, and the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.

Frameworks provide a structure for a project. Within that structure, you can choose what is most appropriate, without having to slavishly follow the methodology because the company handbook says you have to.

The challenge with frameworks is that you need professional judgement to be able to know what to pick and choose from within it to deliver the outcomes required for this particular project. Less experienced project managers may need some support in this area.

In all projects and programme it’s the outcomes that determine success. The route to achieving these is therefore critical, as is the approach you use.

Do you and your organisation a favour, find a suitable framework and stop seeking out the ‘Silver Bullets’ of methodologies that can’t deliver the flexibility you need for success.

 

View the full story here… girlsguidetopm.com

Project Controls Simplified: How To Manage And Control Your Projects

Mark Stettner

Being a digital project manager, you might wonder why you’d have to concern yourself with project controls. You’re thinking: Last time you checked in, everyone seemed confident…

The truth is, projects rarely go as planned. Things change on a constant basis, whether it’s your team members, client expectations or unanticipated complexities that affect your planning. While it’s important to have a detailed Statement of Work, an accurate Budget Estimate, and a Project Plan to keep everyone on the same page, as priorities shift during the project, you need project controls to manage the changes to the working guidelines you initially laid out.

Effectively setting up a project control process will enable you to keep an eye on cost and schedule as things shift and evolve throughout the project. It’s the key to navigating your project through rough waters—and it will save your project from going off the rails.

A project control system aims to minimize the gap between project planning and project execution in order to achieve project aims, i.e., cost, time, and content.

In the project lifecycle that acts as a high-level framework for all projects, project controls are a critical component of the Monitoring & Controlling phase.

The biggest misconception about project controls is probably that you, as the DPM, need to control (a.k.a. micromanage) your team at all times in order to get the right results. However, controlling in the form of micromanaging doesn’t leverage your team’s strengths and risks taking the project off track.

In fact, project controls are often invisible to the team. Project controls aren’t about directly controlling the work or the people who do it; it’s about maintaining control over the structure and flow of the project itself.  Project controls are a basic element of any project that can help anticipate problems and opportunities.

In practice, project controls focus on monitoring relevant project KPIs such as cost and schedule, which ultimately tie in with scope and delivery. For example, if you are ahead of schedule and/or below cost, you can spend budget on more polish for a project to enhance the quality. If the budget is looking tight, the info from your project controls will inform the adjustments you make.

As a digital project manager, chances are you don’t work with a Project Controller—you are the Project Controller. You are responsible for cost, schedule, and scope.

This famous conundrum of “you can’t have all three, so pick two” can get you into sticky situations. You’ve undoubtedly had conversations like these:

– “Surely the client would be much happier, if we could have just two more days to finesse this…”

This balancing act is one of the hardest tasks for us as project managers. On the one hand, we have to deliver a product that makes the client happy. On the other hand, we should always be behind the team and allow them to put their best work forward.

Project controls allow you to go into these conversations well-prepared. When done right, you will have the perfect tools to make informed decisions on the project for an optimal balance between cost, schedule, and quality. Instead of making the cost and time constraints the team’s problem, as a DPM, we are the facilitators that need to use these levers and constraints as a tool to get the project to the finish line.

As project managers, we follow a daily routine to ensure the project stays on track. This requires that we know what’s going on. Sounds simple—in reality it is a constant cycle of processing information, planning, and making decisions.

To proceed, following these four essential phases in a project controlling process:

Know where your project is at with regard to the project plan, anticipated output, and overall trajectory. Get under the hood. Ask questions to ensure you understand the current status. When you evaluate, use project Status Reports and metrics as a basis for decisions.

Once you have a plan, implement your changes. This includes letting the client know what’s changing and making sure the team is fully informed and onboard. Know the impact to budget and timeline, and make the appropriate adjustments.

As a PM you’re the glue that holds the team together. Ensure that you distribute your knowledge to the team so that everyone gets the full picture. Ensure the client is in the loop and that information flows to where it is needed. Set reminders and do follow-ups both internally and externally to avoid slippage.

From the beginning of a project, you should be thinking about how you need to approach reporting. Try and utilize any of your existing project management software. This could include time-tracking tools, as much as possible for your report generation. Ideally, report generation becomes a routine for you (not a tedious task that might fall through the cracks).

Choosing the correct level of reporting will making confident decision-making possible.

As PM, it’s up to us to decide if we want to to expose budgets and give full transparency on the numbers. It is usually better to keep at least a slight buffer as opposed to exposing the full picture.

A Status Report contains all relevant metrics of an ongoing project and ensures all involved parties have a clear understanding of where the project is at.

Setting up a project management Status Report is an invaluable step to ensure clients are informed on important project metrics such as costs, timing, risks, and blockers. Exposing the right amount of information regularly will ensure clients feel involved in the project and make tough conversations easier.

Some clients expect to see detailed hourly reports, while others are ok with a higher level picture. If it’s unclear, start at a high level with what’s easy for you to manage while still detailed enough to be useful to you and the client. You can always add more detail, if requested.

To establish a proper reporting cadence, aim for weekly project Status Reports. They don’t need to be long—30 minutes might be plenty—but it’s an important aspect of the client relationship and establishes trust and transparency. Being consistent with Status Reports is key for transparency and effective management. It’s essential to have an updated Status Report ready in each weekly meeting. Make sure your client understands the content of the report—walk them through the information so they can explain it to their colleagues down the line.

Status meetings are the perfect opportunity for some face time with your client. If possible, have these meetings in person: go for a coffee, and develop a relationship. Don’t just talk about the project; instead, show an interest in the other things happening with your client’s company, and share some highlights of yours. It might open business opportunities that you haven’t even thought of.

A Change Request (CR) outlines and defines a change in scope that occurred in the project, as compared to the initial Statement of Work or estimate that was provided. For example: additional revisions, more design work, or new features that need to be completed to ensure project success.

A Change Request should always be formalized and acknowledged by both parties to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Once identified, map out the description, impacts on budget, impacts on timeline, and send to the client.

While it’s a common misconception that Change Requests are negative, they are simply a part of effective project management for communicating that the anticipated scope has changed. Especially when this happens later on in projects, these scope change decisions can be made with confidence and will result in better outcome. It’s essential to educate the client on the Change Request process early on so everyone’s familiar with it.

A big part of project controls has to do with controlling scope, and Change Requests are essential to this process. In order to educate everyone on the process, don’t shy away from issuing Change Requests, even for seemingly simple items with minor impacts. Change requests with no budget impact help enforce the process and keep everyone aligned on decisions.

A RAID log is a tool for capturing and managing risks. It’s a risk management document where you record risks, assumptions, issues, and dependencies.

General Status Reports usually have a high-level focus, while RAID logs takes things a step further, focusing specifically on risk management. It’s a document that holds the team and stakeholders accountable by accurately tracking risks along with assigned actions.

You should start a RAID log at the beginning of the project and update it in regular meetings with the client’s input. It’s important that decisions are also documented in this document. It should include:

RAID logs are particularly helpful for projects in complex environments with many stakeholders, such as third parties, steering committees, IT departments, or contractors.

In my experience, a well-established and consistent project control process is the backbone for delivering projects on time and on budget. It also gives the team peace of mind that you, as their project manager, have got their back.

View the full story here… thedigitalprojectmanager.com

Easy and Doable Steps to Ensure Project Success

Marlouzel Mabunga

You may have experienced feeling intimidated at times when you see star project managers breezing through their tasks when it comes to managing big teams.

And then you look at yourself with a small team and wonder why you aren’t getting things done.

There have been numerous studies and observations as to why there are teams that succeed at working together toward their goals while there are others that don’t seem to push through with what they have to do.

Through these observations came insights as to how goals can be better achieved on time and on budget. The bottom line of it all is this: the project manager has to be effective in his or her role. The project manager has to be excellent at his or her job so that the rest of the team members will be, too.

It isn’t much about luck or talent. It is a combination of a number of factors for the whole team to be successful in achieving its goals. Here are some of the doable ways that you can become an effective project manager and ensure project success.

Make sure that your team is in line with the overall goal that you want to achieve. Nurture in them the can-do attitude as well. This will help you in building emotional commitment with the rest of the team members.

To do this effectively, empower them, appreciate them, and allow them to contribute to the team. Make each of the members feel that they are a vital part of the project; that they will feel each success or failure as their own. When you can do this successfully, you will see that the team members will start to work harder so that failures can be avoided and victories can be achieved.

Another important factor to becoming an effective project manager is communication. Important information about the project has to be accessible to everyone in the team. Sure, remote working is a thing nowadays. However, it is still important that the team will remain on the same page so that each of you will know the progress of the project.

By allowing the people in your team to be well-informed, they will be able to identify the things that have an effect on them. They can be aware of the impact of their work in the goal of their project. If the team misses a certain goal, everyone will know about it, and everyone can work together to patch up the damage. By opening communication, the team can work better and more effectively.

When you start a new project, always look back to your previous projects and think about how you can run this one better than the last. When you finish a project, ask yourself what you could have done differently if you could do it all over.

By asking these questions, you become aware of emerging lessons that you learn from the projects that you handle. Apart from that, you will also be training yourself to think more critically on how things could have been done better and then learning from that systematically.

Talent and skills are not enough to get the best possible job done. You will need some help one way or another. There are plenty of project management tools today that you can try out. It would be a shame to waste such tools by not using them.

Tools are there to make the task easier to accomplish. Make use of them well. Regardless of the kind of tools you will be using, see to it that you remain disciplined and organized when it comes to logging your tasks.

When you work in improving your skills, learn from the little lessons and insights that emerge along the way. Try to focus on these four basic steps so that you can grow faster and be the effective project manager that you envision yourself to be, and also to work your way into making each of the projects that you handle a success.

There may be rough patches along the way when your working towards your goals for the project. But don’t fret. This is where most of the learning will come. Embrace the challenges that come your way because then, you will be able to test your skills in project management. You will grow as a project manager and you will be better equipped with wisdom and knowledge in handling future projects.

 

View the full story here… projecttimes.com

Tips + Tools For Managing Efficient Virtual Teams

Dmitrii Susloparov

Any HR professional can tell you: the remote workforce is expanding. In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43% of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, an increase of 4% since 2012. And some companies (Buffer.com, Chess.com) go the whole nine yards with entirely virtual teams: everyone works off-site, spanning multiple time zones, countries, even continents.

For many, working remotely means added flexibility and freedom. But a distributed workforce presents new challenges to project managers accustomed to an in-house team.

Below are some common areas of concern stemming from the reality of having a remote team. We will see that none of the concerns are drastically different from what we deal with on a day-to-day basis.

You may not be able to simply drop by your colleague’s remote office (if you did, you might find yourself holding a meeting on their bed).

However, even though your team is spread over different time zones and locations, you’re probably already well-versed in building relationships that span geographical boundaries. The foundations for success, such as basic communication skills and use of enabling technology, are already in place—they just need to be tweaked for managing remote relationships. Just as you had to experiment until you found the right time of day and medium for connecting with your valued supplier, your interaction with remote workers has to be orchestrated through conscientious planning. In today’s global markets, we already conduct business with long-distance suppliers, customers, agents, project sponsors, etc.

Take a deep breath, and remember: you’re already familiar with the foundational skills for managing an efficient virtual team

Especially if your virtual team is newly assembled, working remotely will incur start-up costs and downtime during setup. In light of today’s just-in-time production schedules and uber-tight budgets, project managers are rightfully cautious of introducing remote work arrangements.

Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t unique to virtual teams: like all new initiatives (adding new personnel or tools, adopting new methods) requires resources. When managed properly, the new initiatives can ultimately drive productivity gains that offset the initial overhead. In fact, Industry research shows productivity gains due to increased effort and engagement by virtual teams.

The importance of communication in the life of project managers is highlighted by the claim that 90% of a PM’s time is spent on communication. As a critical element of the job, crafting a solid communication plan becomes all the more important when coordinating efforts between a team spread across the globe.

From presenting sponsors with a status report to coaching a team member on improving their performance, we PMs are already accustomed to using a variety of mediums (wikis, tweets, emails) to communicate—even when we’re working with an on-site team.

Of course, it’s true that timezone differences make effective communication with remote team members more challenging, but effective communication with virtual team members is certainly attainable.

Nowadays, it is rare for project team members to be fully dedicated to a single project at any given time. We often fret over the possibility that, on a given day, a scheduled remote worker may work on another project (or not work at all). Supervising virtual teams is a challenge due to the lack of proximity.

However, remember that we, as project managers, face the same reality even if team members are on-site. On-site employees also juggle multiple projects simultaneously. This is so common that there’s a well-developed pool of knowledge  on how to improve productivity in a multi-project multitasking work environment. What is encouraging is that off-site workers have a distinct productivity advantage over their on-site colleagues: in general, they self-manage much of their working time. This means they can stop working on a task at a logical completion point before switching to a new one, hence minimizing the loss of productivity due to context switching.

The above concerns arising from having to manage a remote workforce are nothing new to us as project managers. Still, the coordination challenges they pose to are exacerbated by the distance and time zone differences.

Left alone, out-of-sight remote team members may become out-of-mind. When this happens, they may develop feelings of isolation, become reluctant to provide or ask for help from the team, and stop providing meaningful feedback to management.

To facilitate effective, ongoing interactions among team members, leverage technology. Slack is a popular team communication platform. Team members can communicate using email, text, voice, video calls—whatever platform you use, organize the communication space clearly so team members can get ahold of one another reliably. Today, almost all of the project management software out there comes with team communication tools, and most also offer the option to integrate additional tools (like Slack).

As PMs, we should allocate sufficient time in our own schedule for one-on-one touchpoints with each off-site team member. Weekly video calls (using Skype or Google Hangouts) are ideal, but not always practical depending on your case. The key takeaway is that the one-on-one time is precious and should be used as such: mundane housekeeping topics such as time-tracking should be kept out of those dialogues. Instead, spend the time on coaching and exchanging honest feedback.

A high-end computer plus a fast Internet connection are but the basic information technology apparatus for working remotely. Alone, they aren’t going to automatically boost productivity for virtual teams—this is where good PM software comes into play.

Tools that on-site workers normally use may not translate well to a distributed team environment. To optimize a distributed workflow, additional tools are required, e.g., document management software. Slack (or a similar tool) allows a team of people located in different work sites to collaborate on the authoring, proof-reading and signing off of documents.

Virtual teams do not have access to the support infrastructures located at headquarters. As a project manager, we want virtual teams to spend the majority of their time on productive project-related tasks, not the mundane administrative ones. For example, tasks such as time tracking are essential but energy-draining to a remote worker. The good news is that applications exist to automate important administrative tasks. DPM recently published a great article listing some of the best applications with automatic time tracking.

Our organizations may already have written policies and operational procedures governing the acceptable uses of information technology and social media, call monitoring, employee privacy, etc. If these documents predate the era of the remote workforce, they need updates to stay relevant.

For a project team member, the main attraction of working remotely is the flexibility to set one’s working hours and to optimize personal peak production times. However, we don’t want our team members to work in silo, feel alienated, or burn out. Below are some procedural rules that  project managers should consider adding into the corporate policies:

If our organizations choose to monitor remote work activities, such as screenshots, emails, calls, etc, two company policies must be updated – the Employee Privacy Policy and the Acceptable Use of Information Technology Policy. They need to clearly spell out what and how members of virtual teams are being monitored.

A remote workforce holds the promise of increased overall productivity. However, the boost in productivity will not materialize suddenly, just as a remote worker will not suddenly become a self-managing super-producing employee of the month. Productivity-friendly work habits need to be developed and perfected over time. We as project managers should step into the role of the coach.

To be  good coaches, we require an accurate picture of the worker’s work habits and performance data. Without objective input data, productivity discussions quickly descend into guessing exercises and heated rebuttals. Again, technology alleviates the problem by automating the capture of the vital data. The time tracking applications mentioned in Lifehack 2 capture work hours which can serve as input data in coaching sessions. In addition to capturing hours worked, these apps also record statistics on applications run and websites visited by the remote worker.

Conventional wisdom tells us that remote workers, with no daily commutes and more family time, should theoretically have a healthy work-life balance.

It may come as a surprise to learn that several studies have shown that remote workers are at risk of the exact opposite, due to an inability to switch out of work mode. While higher productivity is the goal of every organization, burn-out as a by-product is not. We have the responsibility to protect the well-being of team members to ensure their long-term productivity.

As project managers, we need to engage each remote team member in discussions on maintaining a good work-life balance while keeping productivity high. Each team member is unique. Hence, there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Some flexibility and room for exploration should be allowed. However, we should monitor progress based on the hours worked as reported by time tracking applications.

Remote working is a modern phenomenon which introduces new challenges—and sometimes repackages the conventional PM challenges with a slightly different flavor.

Project managers can cope with a virtual project team by focusing on improving our coaching and communication skills, and by researching and embracing new technologies that better support a distributed workflow.

 

View the full story here… thedigitalprojectmanager.com

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