One of the joys of my life right now is teaching my last teenager how to drive. In case you’ve forgotten, when someone is first learning to drive, it’s all about the mechanics (smooth acceleration, braking, maintaining the lane, and handling turns). While the budding driver may think these driving basics are easy, she will soon discover there is more to driving, from anticipating patterns to predicting what other drivers are going to do.
At this point, my daughter has learned to manage her speed and anticipate what’s happening in front of her. But she’ll also soon learn that you don’t just pay attention to the car directly in front of you. You pay attention to what is going on all around you.
Of course, this strategy is not just reserved for driving. In the world of project management, it’s important to allocate some attention to the project that’s off in the distance. This is the long game of project management, and it can pay big dividends for the project manager who invests the time to do it.
Playing the long game—i.e., stepping away from the barrage of tasks and people to take a look at how the project itself is being managed—is akin to changing the zoom on a camera lens. It’s important to pan out from your immediate subject in order to take in a wider view to incorporate context and environment. When you get too close to things, you can be a bit like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address who asks another fish “how’s the water?” and the second fish responds “what’s water?” If you don’t deliberately pay attention to your surroundings, you generally accept them and take them for granted.
So the more conscious you are of your project environment (often referred to as the project context), the more you can influence it. Things such as organizational support, your PMO, professional development opportunities, team reporting structure, your methodology, and the company policy are not things you have to silently accept. If you think some of these larger aspects of the project environment need to change, well, advocate for change. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see.”
And there’s no better time to be the change than before your next project begins. With that in mind, here are three techniques to help you evaluate and improve your own project context—and your long game.
1. Look at how other organizations do it.
All organizations approach and manage projects differently. Learning from others’ best practices and implementing them in your organization is far better than trying to figure out everything on your own.
As an example, I have a stake in an event rental company in Atlanta, Georgia, where we’re constantly trying to improve efficiencies and performance for setting up large pieces of equipment. As part of our training, we watch Formula 1 crews at pit stops. Now, setting up a giant tent at a car race has some marked differences from servicing one of these amazing machines, but there are more similarities than you might think. For example, it’s inspired to use more specialists and fewer generalists; to cut down on the unnecessary movement, and to measure and time everything. As a result, our setup time has decreased sharply.
One of the ways we do this in project management is by having many employees mentored by people outside our company whenever possible. It’s a great way to bring in fresh ideas and perspectives to our challenges and problems.
2. Measure, measure, and then measure a little more.
Nothing speaks louder than data, and nothing works better than data to help expose issues with your project environment. Project managers know that what gets measured gets done, so what exactly should project managers measure?
One of the simplest places to start is to have your team members estimate how they’ll use their time on the front end, and then have them track their actual time against those estimates. It’s not that big of a burden—people who bill by the hour usually do this anyway, but the project manager can carry it a step further by measuring and reporting her performance against her estimates. Many Agile practitioners post these reports publicly to encourage people to work towards greater efficiency.
Earned value is another important measure that often gets overlooked due to its (mostly undeserved) reputation for being cumbersome and difficult. By tracking a few key earned value measures, such as the Schedule Performance Index (SPI) and Cost Performance Index (CPI), you can get an excellent triangulation of how the project is performing against scope, schedule, and cost.
Figuring out the right metrics to track and how to track them is a very worthwhile goal for project managers—particularly those who are trying to improve their environment.
3. Build infrastructure.
Project infrastructure is a major part of our project environment, and everyone who works around me knows that I am a believer in project infrastructure. By this I mean that I believe in systems, processes, and tools that will automate or ease some of the painstaking tasks of managing a project. Sometimes lo-tech solutions are fine, such as a deck of planning poker cards to assist in estimating. Other times, enterprise technology tools are needed to facilitate roll-up reporting from a distributed team.
The key here is to get just the right amount of process into place (I love the Agile philosophy of “barely sufficient”). This way, you don’t burden the team with pointless meetings or heavy documentation tasks that are not essential to the project’s success.
The infrastructure helps guide the team and makes redundant tasks easier will pay off virtually every time in the long run.
Looking forward with a broad lens
Occasionally, the best thing a project manager can do is to look around and ask, “How’s the water?” Taking a critical look at the project structure is the first step in making things better. Start small, and ask the critical questions about what changes would be helpful for the project, the team, and the organization.
The project management long game isn’t always the easiest thing to pay attention to when project fires are burning; but it’s one of the best ways to affect real, lasting change for the projects that haven’t yet taken place.
Tell us about your long game—what’s your first rule of play?