Author: Christian Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP

Christian Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP

About Christian Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP

Christian Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP, is a leader and active practitioner in the area of infrastructure program management, strategy alignment/development, and team/organizational leadership. He is currently the program director for a $1 billion infrastructure development program in the United Kingdom. Knutson has more than two decades of experience as a civil engineer field grade officer in the U.S. Air Force, developing the soft skills necessary for an engineer to be successful on program and project execution and leading people. He helps engineers grow personally and develop as leaders through his writing at The Engineer Leader blog and through his work on The Engineering Career Coach (TECC) podcast and The Civil Engineering Podcast (CEP).

How to Step Up When the Project Manager Is Away

One piece of valuable advice I was given early in my career was to always work to make my boss’s boss look good. Another was to always work as if I were the one responsible for the outcome. These two lessons had a profound effect on my career trajectory, helping me progress through ever-increasing levels and scope of responsibility.

They are also relevant to each of us working on a project, regardless of industry or country. One key reason is that your project manager will take leave or be away on business at some point in the project’s life cycle. When that happens, does the project go on hold? Probably not.

How do you keep the project moving forward while making your boss’s boss look good and acting as if you were the one calling the shots? Two words: preparation and action.

Preparing for Acting in Your Project

This issue is relevant to me. As a program manager for an $800 million infrastructure design and construction effort, I have commitments away from the office. When I’m gone, I don’t want the program to come to a halt awaiting my return. I want my team leads to step up and keep the program moving forward according to schedule.

No doubt, your project manager wants the same thing happening on their project. Here’s how you can prepare for action when your project manager is away:

Define Expectations Up Front

While project managers want team members to step up, they don’t want them to get out of their swim lane. You can prepare for your project manager’s absence by determining what their expectations are for leadership, monitoring, and control of the project during their absence. Never assume that this has been determined, because if you do not know what is expected, then it’s unlikely the project manager knows.

Questions to ask include the following:

  • What meetings are occurring during the absence and who’s covering them?
  • What material needs to be prepared for the meetings?
  • What deliverables or artifacts are to be produced during the absence and to whom?
  • Are there any governance meetings scheduled? If so, what needs to be done to be prepared?
  • Are there any reports due? If so, what type, who produces them and what does the project manager do with them?

The list could go on, but you get the point. To be prepared to act while the project manager is away, you need to know what the expectations are of the project manager. Never assume this has been discussed and planned in advance.

Maintain Situational Awareness

By definition, situational awareness is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status. Although it comes from the aviation industry, it’s very relevant to project management.

I simplify the definition to this: knowing what’s going on.

I also simplify the level of situational awareness (or SA) to the 80/20 Principle, being that 80 percent of the project team members lack SA while 20 percent have it. You want to be in the 20-percent category.

You get there by asking to attend project review meetings, asking to obtain project status review updates, and keeping a pulse on the project’s status while in production. This puts you in a great position to act in a manner that supports the project positively from day to day. It also positions you to step up in the project manager’s absence because you are already aware of the bigger picture.

By maintaining situational awareness, you position yourself to support the project manager when they’re present by acting in advance to create positive outcomes. You also support the project manager by being prepared to step-up when they are away.

Act “As-If”

You won’t find the adjective “audacious” affiliated with mainstream career success advice or used in mentoring discussions. It is, however, the surest way for expanding your skills, enhancing your career success and maximizing the effect of each of your days. Applied in the right mindset, being audacious can lead you to achieving each of your goals and making your project manager (and their boss) look like a rock star.

The concept of being audacious and acting As-If go hand in hand and are both necessary for you to advance in your project management career and perform brilliantly when the project manager is away.

To simplify this concept, you need to act with the mindset that you are responsible and accountable for the project, even when you are not. When you’re operating with this mindset and an emergent issue arises, you provide constructive input to your team to resolve it as soon as possible. Project managers the world over want team members who are acting As-If. When this happens, they know they have backup, they have team members with skin in the game, and they can feel confident being absent without the project going off the rails.

Respect Who’s in Charge

There can be a fine line between acting As-If and overstepping your bounds. I’ve seen repeated situations where project team members took positive actions, only to be slammed by the project manager for overstepping their bounds. Often times, this happens because expectations weren’t sorted beforehand. Sometimes, this happens because the project manager has a large ego and lacks the confidence to let others on the project team step up.

Your job is to make sure expectations are clear and then use your emotional intelligence to figure out if your project manager is going to crush you for acting when they’re away.

I don’t have an answer for how to overcome a project manager with a confidence shortfall. From a career of experience, I can only offer these tips:

  • Always respect who’s in charge. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s your job to get along with the project manager, not the project manager’s job to get along with you.
  • Figure out early on if the project manager is going to have a confidence issue or not. If you have any emotional intelligence, you’ll be able to figure this out. If you lack emotional intelligence, then make sure you have clear expectations. (Usually if you can’t get any expectations from the project manager, they have a confidence problem.)
  • If the project manager has a confidence issue, then you have two alternatives: live with it and do what needs to be done to get by or find a new job.

Understand the Project

As a project professional, nothing makes me happier than to see a member of my team have their finger on the pulse of the project. Not only the performance/time/cost status, but an understanding of the risks, actions, issues, and other factors affecting delivery and outcome.

You won’t go wrong by having a really good understanding of your project. By doing so, you position yourself to be named the project managers deputy when they’re away. Short of this, you are developing the knowledge and experience you need to be the project manager without having the responsibility by learning from experience.

Don’t Wait to be Told

If you need to be told by the project manager to do any of the things I’ve told you, then you’re not ready to be a project manager. Lean forward and start acting As-If today. Understand the performance, cost, and schedule facets of the project you’re working on. Make certain you are coherent on the risk, actions, issues, and decisions affecting the project. Know the project’s battle rhythm and pay attention to the dynamics within the team. Including the project manager’s capacity for having other people provide counsel and act.

As a project manager, I want project team members who are situationally aware and prepared to step into the breach if I am absent. While I can direct my staff to get situationally aware and understand the project’s quantitative and qualitative aspects, it’s way simpler if they do this without prompting. The result tends to be more positive for everyone involved.

Five Actions for Inspiring Your Project Team

Every project manager will need to inspire a project team at some point in their career. The reasons may range from having an over-challenging project to being appointed to recover a failing project. Or, the reasons may be less daunting, and things are just business as usual.

Whatever the circumstances, as a project manager you’ll need to apply a wide range of leadership and communications skills to inspire a team. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t readily learned from a book. They come through experience and, quite frankly, sometimes failing to rally the people.

Burning Platforms Versus Believing in Something Larger

Inspiration comes from either a burning platform—a failing project or a legitimate crisis situation—or the belief that you are part of something larger than yourself. Having worked on project teams inspired by both situations several times, the mechanics of inspiring a project team is roughly the same. The difference is the underlying factors, which the project manager needs to understand.

In burning platform projects, people are inspired because they perceive there’s a binary outcome: catastrophic failure or success. Nothing inspires a person more than the belief that their livelihood, their employment, and perhaps their reputation will be adversely affected by a project failing. When your personal equity is at stake, you tend to get inspired pretty quickly. The project manager’s role in these situations is not only to set a vision and direction to avert disaster but to keep the project team members from panic.

Believing in something larger than oneself requires a project manager who can paint the picture of the hero’s journey. This is the typical story of the individual or team who ventures off into the hinterland on a call to action where they learn about themselves, survive adversity, and transform to achieve great things. A little hyperbole here, but in most projects—especially large, transformative ones—there’s more than a hint of truth.

To inspire the belief within your team that a project is a larger-than-life endeavor takes a project manager with a strong ability to discern why the project is being implemented in order to craft the messages and create the values, beliefs, cultures, and messages to sustain a project team’s inspiration.

The Mechanics of Inspiring a Project Team

You inspire a project team by applying some or all of the following five elements. Which ones, and to what extent, requires you to, first, determine what type of project you have (i.e., a burning platform or larger-than-life project) and, second, understand to which of these elements your project team will respond.

1. Establish a Vision.

In training youth leaders in Boy Scouts, I teach that a vision is what future success looks like. This is a simple definition that avoids the high-level business speak and baggage that typically accompanies the word “vision.” Your role as the project manager is to understand the why of a project and then articulate this in a simple statement. For example, let’s say your project team is working a project to reduce check-in wait times at a regional airport. Which of the following vision statements is more inspiring?

  1. This project will achieve a 15-percent reduction in time for passengers at check-in.
  2. Project Cronus will enhance the passenger experience by giving time back to every individual.

Those familiar with Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, will understand that when you can articulate why something is being done, it becomes a lot easier to sort out what needs to occur and how it will happen. Too often, we go at projects from the other direction, starting with how the project will be accomplished and what we will do before finally arrive at why we are doing it.

That’s not particularly inspiring.

2. Develop KPIs and Reports That Reinforce the Vision.

Both of these monitoring and controlling artifacts are standard fare for projects. To make them inspire your project team, you need to craft them to reinforce the vision. While it’s assumed you’ll have key performance indicators and reports that capture data on a project’s scope, cost, schedule, and quality, begin looking at other measures that reinforce the vision you’re attempting to get after.

For example, if your vision is to enhance the passenger experience by giving them time back by streamlining the check-in process, develop a KPI that tracks the time savings in relation to the final goal. The goal is to hit on KPIs and structure reports in such a fashion that project team members have a tangible measure of how their efforts are collectively contributing to achieving the vision.

3. Create A Recognition Program.

Depending on the size and complexity of the project team, another way to generate inspiration is through a bespoke recognition program. The main goal ties the recognition to the vision for the project and the KPIs, so there’s a clear connection between delivering the goods and good things happening. By recognizing project team members for their contributions toward achieving the vision, you reinforce the values, beliefs, and culture of the project while inspiring others to strive for the recognition as well. Most people like to be recognized for their performance, and some among us thrive on recognition. What better way to inspire project team members than by recognizing key performers?

4. Establish a Shared Identity.

Another way you can inspire your project team is to develop a shared identity. Some of the ways I’ve achieved this on projects is to use these tangible items:

  • A project name and motto. For example, on the program I’m directing at the moment, we’ve given it the name Project Olympus and the motto Aut Viam Inveniam Aut Faciam, or “I will find a way or make one.” Quite appropriate for project managers!
  • A project logo, which you can put on documents and other artifacts, coffee mugs, shirts, etc.
  • Social events for the project team that also include their family members.
  • A project charter that is based on the key values required for success on the project.

The goal here is to create a culture within the project team that reinforces the vision and inspire project team members to achieve the project’s success.

5. Generate an Information Campaign.

Inspiring people outside the project team can be a great way for inspiriting people within the project team. The greater external stakeholder community is a great resource for generating inspiration and motivation for a project team. This requires you to craft an information campaign, aka marketing, of your project team’s journey. Posting to social media, uploading photo imagery, maintaining a blog, and providing ‘open project days’ are all great ways to draw inspiration from outside the project team to generate inspiration within the project team.

Inspiring your project team requires a number of skills, chief among them the ability to know your people and knowing how to establish a project vision. Knowledge of your team will help you in selecting the actions you’ll need to take for establishing the values, beliefs, and team culture that will sustain your project team’s inspiration through project completion.

5 Steps to Making Your Project Meetings Effective

“As a leader, you must consistently drive effective communication. Meetings must be deliberate and intentional—your organizational rhythm should value purpose over habit and effectiveness over efficiency.”- Chris Fussell

Meetings.

They are the bane of every project managers existence, consuming wide swaths of the calendar without any appreciation for real work to be accomplished.  Or are they?

In the past eight months of my life directing a large infrastructure program, I spend on average 70% of my time in meetings.  Your situation may or may not be similar, however, I know you sit in meetings from time-to-time wishing you were somewhere else doing something else.

This feeling is pretty much standard operating procedure for those of us in the project delivery space.  But does it need to be this way all the time?

Since I have invested 70% of my life over the past year sitting in meetings I’ve developed a solid understanding of what works for getting ones point across in meetings that actually produce results.

Productive Project Meetings Require Effective Planning

The main take away from all of the time I’ve clocked sitting in a conference room is this:  productive project meetings require effective planning.  This concept applies to not only routine fixtures in your calendar, but the ad hoc meetings that pop up throughout the day.  I’ll touch on how to apply this simple concept to ad hoc meetings at the end of the article.

While I suspect you may not read anything here you’ve not read before, it warrants a repeat.  Many project managers fall short of structuring, executing and documenting their meetings.  This has a direct negative impact on the project, as lack of a meeting framework will most certainly lead to a waste of one resource every project manager needs:  time.

Related article: Advice for Project Managers: Leading Meetings and Streamlined Reporting

Let’s start with looking at five steps to making your project meetings effective starting this week:

  1. A defined purpose.

While the old stand-by of having an agenda is still valid, any meeting you enter must have a defined purpose. If there is a standing weekly or monthly meeting in the calendar, what is it for?  Can everyone who is in attendance state why it’s held and what is intended by it?  If not, then you need to remedy this knowledge gap ASAP.

Understanding what the purpose of a meeting is, helps to focus all minds on the topic or issue at hand.  It also gives you the ability to bring the discussion back to the purpose when it ventures off into unrelated areas.

  1. A defined structure.

The 20th Century architectural principle of form follows function applies to your meetings.  Regardless of what structure you give your meetings, each one needs to have a framework in which it operates.

One tool I’ve picked up from my time working in Europe is the use of a Terms of Reference (TOR) in standing meetings. The TOR defines the purpose and structure of the meeting in black and white so that everyone knows what the purpose is, as well as who’s in it and what the agenda will look like.

Do not make this complex.  All standing meetings I run have a simple, 1-slide TOR that includes the following elements:

  • Purpose Statement
  • Listing of Participants (highlighting the facilitator)
  • Standard Agenda
  • Intended Outcomes
  • Frequency
  1. A facilitator.

Effective meetings must have a facilitator. This person serves a purpose beyond keeping everyone to the agenda and watching the clock.  They ensure that everyone in the conference room has a chance to include their thoughts.  They can also orchestrate active decision making, use tools to help participant’s visualize issues (e.g. mind maps or Ishikawa diagrams).  Most importantly, they ensure that decisions are arrived at with each participant’s opportunity to participate.

Meetings without a facilitator are never effective.  If you lack the communications skills to be an effective facilitator, choose an effective participant to fill this role while you develop your capability.

Related article: 10 Tips for Effective Meetings

  1. A record of actions and decisions.

If you run a one-hour meeting with 20 people, you’ve invested half a week’s worth of productivity in that one meeting. It better have a return on investment, otherwise, you are wasting a valuable project resource – time.

None of the projects in my program have the luxury of ample time, therefore I’m keen to ensure that if a meeting is held, there are specific actions and decisions noted and documented.  These become the basis for the start of the next meeting, ensuring that participants accomplish what they said they will accomplish.

  1. A commitment to come prepared.

The first five steps are elements you can control as the project manager, since you have the ability to define a meetings purpose, its structure, who the facilitator will be and what actions and decisions are both taken and captured.

This last step is a shared responsibility, between you and the other participants.  Naturally, you can’t force someone to come prepared to your meetings.  You can motivate participants to be more active by providing a structured meeting that invites active participation from everyone in the room.  This requires you, or your facilitator, to be an active listener and a person who draws out input from each person in the meeting.

Sitting in meetings where participants are not prepared can be traced back to a lack of purpose or a knowledge that the meeting holds limited value to one’s equity in the topic.  Overcome this by delivering engaging meetings that elicit diverse opinion and stimulate dialog and active decision making.  Then participants will show up prepared.

Finally, what about ad hoc meetings?  A day doesn’t go by where an unscheduled pop-up conference call or office meeting doesn’t occur.  For these situations, you can still ensure they are effective by ensuring that you (1) understand the purpose of the conversation and (2) leave the conversation with a clear understanding of who is tasked to do what as a result.

If you keep these two items in mind during ad hoc meetings – what issue/problem are we addressing and what are the actions arising – then these emergent meetings will be just as effective as the standing fixtures in your calendar.

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager”, as well as our productivity toolkit.

3 Steps to Bringing Order and Teamwork to Your Next Project

Any project manager worth their salary will tell you that order and teamwork don’t just happen on a project. To get either one requires hard work. That works starts in the initiation stage and continues all the way through close out. It is never a once-and-done action. Instead, it’s an evolutionary activity requiring the project manager to read the internal and external environment and apply their emotional intelligence skills.

Teamwork is easy to define. Any one of us involved in project delivery know the difference between an effective and a dysfunctional team. While it takes deliberate action to move a project team through forming, storming, and norming to get to performing, it take a lot more deliberate action to generate order in the project.

What do I mean by “order”?

Order on a project consists of the processes, structures, responsibilities and behaviors, or PSRB, of the project delivery stakeholders.

On an in-house project, establishing and maintaining PSRB can be relatively simple. Each element becomes codified over time and likely captured in company operations manuals and outlined in standard operating procedures.

However, when you find yourself in a multi-organizational environment where each entity has its own PSRB, order becomes a bit more difficult to arrange. In fact, it can be downright impossible to secure.

Related: 7 Tips for Managing Global Teams

An environment like this is highly chaotic and often times comes with more than one project manager. If you find yourself in a situation like this, you need to shift focus away from scope, schedule, and cost and put it on negotiating a collaborative PSRB.

If you cannot get the main project stakeholders signed-on to collaborative processes, structures, responsibilities, and behaviors, the likelihood of delivering the project successfully to scope, schedule and cost will be exceedingly low.

Create Order to Form a Team

The process to create order on in a multi-stakeholder project isn’t complex and can be arrived at through a few key actions. However, like many things in life, the lack of complexity doesn’t mean it’s easy to obtain.

Developing processes, structures, responsibilities and behaviors that are shared across the key stakeholder organizations will absolutely require a sizeable investment of time and continuous maintenance.

1. Build an RRA matrix.

Often times, chaos reigns on a project because roles, responsibilities, and authorities aren’t clear. Or worse, aren’t accepted by all organizations involved in project delivery. The RRA Matrix will help you get clear on what each organization does and where decision making authority rests.

A RACI Matrix—the venerable project management tool that highlights which project team members are responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed—is interesting and can be useful for outlining who’s who.

However, I’ve found much more utility coming from the clear delineation of the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the key stakeholders.

Whereas the RACI Matrix indicates information flow and decision-making authority amongst the key stakeholders, the RRA Matrix helps clarify who makes what decisions and how much skin they have in the game. To be effective, this matrix must contain clear-text definitions of each project stakeholder’s role, their responsibilities, and their authorities.

It’s best if the development of the RRA Matrix is done with a small group of project team members representing each of the key stakeholders. This allows for more open discussions in thrashing-out the matrix content. You can then circulate this for comment and ultimately put in front of your project’s executive management board for approval by each stakeholder organization.

2. Build Predictable and Structured Meetings.

Another chaos generator for complex project delivery teams comes from a lack of structure around meetings. The more involved a project is, the more meetings there will be to plan, solve problems, or prepare for other meetings. One of the best things to do as early as possible is to establish an agreed structure to meetings: frequency, order of occurrence, terms of reference, and inputs/outputs.

Related: How to Run an Effective Meeting: Lessons from Pixar, Apple, and Amazon

I’ve yet to meet a project manager who wishes they had just one more meeting to attend. However, I have met many project managers who wish they had more predictable and structured meetings. The biggest issue with meetings tends to be a lack of rationale, lack of structure, and lack of output. These issues won’t solve themselves and will require someone to invest thought and time into making it right.

Here are a few items to focus on to make your project meetings more predictable and structured:

  • Define why the meeting is occurring; what it will cover, what outputs it will provide, and what is its intent (i.e. for decisions, for information, for problem solving); and then define how it will occur and who needs to be present. Capture all of this in a document and you have the meeting’s Terms Of Reference, or TOR. If you can’t define why, what, how and who with buy-in from the key stakeholders, consider cancelling the meeting because it won’t be effective.
  • Consider the order in which meetings occur and their frequency. If a meeting is currently happening out of sequence (i.e. it’s outputs are required for a meeting that occurs beforehand), adjust the order.
  • Identify a meeting owner and scribe. The owner is responsible for generating the agenda, maintaining an issues/task/decisions log, promulgating briefings and papers for decision, and facilitating the meeting. The scribe takes notes during the meeting in order to let the owner facilitate. All too often, the facilitator is the note taker, meaning that the person doesn’t take good notes and hence, the record of actions and decisions is left lacking and the same issues are discussed over-and-over.

3. Build Proper Governance.

The creation of a purpose-structured governance framework is a necessity in multi-stakeholder project delivery environments. Most organizations have their own governance framework for project implementation. The problem comes when you have multiple key stakeholder organizations each with its own governance framework. Which one’s decisions take precedence?

The ideal situation is to have a combined, purpose-structured governance framework. The framework consists of action/tactical-level working groups feeding into an operational-level management board that, in turn, feeds into an executive-level management board. Each body consists of decision makes from each key stakeholder organization so that decisions are arrived at collaboratively.

Related: 5 Governance Steps for Distributed Project Teams

This is likely to be the hardest task to sort out, but one with the greatest return on investment if it’s done right.

Bringing order to your project will play a large role in inspiring teamwork among the key stakeholders. From my observations, chaos forces constituent stakeholders to put their shields up and retreat to a place where they have order—internally to their organization.

Teamwork in a multi-stakeholder project delivery environment requires order in order to build trust, which is a foundational element of taking a team from storming to performing.

Order starts by defining each stakeholder organization’s role, responsibilities and authorities. By bringing predictability and structure to project team meetings, constituent stakeholders have a framework in which trust can be developed, decisions can be made and problems can be solved.

Finally, through purpose-structured governance, key project stakeholders enact a framework for operational- and executive-level decision making that allows for timely response to risk and more effective use of resources.

5 Governance Steps for Distributed Project Team Management

Managing a distributed project team takes real skill and a definite commitment to putting a governance structure in place that enables success. This is a cardinal rule that I learned firsthand nearly two decades ago managing project teams in Korea, and it stuck with me through my career in the military. The take-away I learned with a distributed project team: a virtual presence is an absolute absence.

So, if your absolute absence is a given because you have project team members operating on three different continents across twelve time zones, then you must put in place the policies, processes, techniques, and templates to standardize activities and ensure the team is playing from the same sheet of music.

Delivering Project Success via Good Governance

Governance is nothing more than how a project will be controlled to deliver intended outcomes. While a lot of effort can go into developing a viable governance structure, it doesn’t have to be that way on every project. In fact, the simpler the governance process and structure, the more likely it is to succeed!

When it comes to governance for a distributed project team, keep it simple. The more complex anything is with distributed teams, the greater the likelihood that it will fail.

Here are five actions I’ve cultivated over the past two decades that have helped me implement good governance on projects with distributed teams:

Set Expectations for the Team

If the team doesn’t know what is expected of them, then you leave the definition of what right looks like to each member of the project team. Original thought can be a good thing, especially if your projects require innovation and ingenuity to deliver new and exciting products and services to your market.

What doesn’t require original thought are your expectations. Established when initiating a project, your expectations of team performance, individual accountability, and standards of conduct must be known and not fluctuate.

Related: How to Become a More Challenging Project Manager

If you do find that a change is needed, then ensure the adjustment is tied to project delivery or some company or client change in policy. Vacillating in your expectations is a project management risk that can lead to re-work, lost productivity or project failure.

Examples of distributed team expectations include:

  • What the working hours are for each operating location
  • What “good” or “effective” work looks like
  • What an acceptable attitude is and how team members will contend with disagreements
  • What issues are to be elevated as routine, urgent or emergency.

Generate Team Goals and Objectives

Whereas expectations tell the distributed project team what right looks like for individual and team behaviors, goals and objectives tell the team where to focus their energies. When you establish goals and objectives, you give your project team targets at which to aim.

One way to do this is to align objectives to work packages in the project’s Work Breakdown Structure. Doing this gives specific distributed project team members responsibility for executing their work package to meet an established target date. The goals then align to the rolled-up work packages.

Another way to establish goals and objectives is to cascade them from the project’s strategic rationale from the business case. Why is the project being executed? With that answer, you determine what is required to make the project a reality. Next you determine how you will achieve each of the goals – the project objectives.

Most people like to know why they are working on a particular task. Those of us with the highest work satisfaction are happy specifically because we can answer the question of “why.”

On a distributed project team, it can be very easy for a project team member to lose sight of why a project is being executed because they’re far from you, perhaps working solo, or miss out on the culture of the home office.

Ensuring that your distributed project team members are able to explain why a project is being executed, what is being done to achieve project success (i.e. goals) and how the work will be accomplished (i.e. objectives) will help significantly to mitigate the risk of members working on unnecessary actions or accomplishing work contrary to what is required for the project.

Establish KPI’s for Monitoring & Controlling Team Performance

You’ve established expectations of behavior and individual/team performance and set goals and objectives for your distributed project team. The next component of governance to put in place are Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for monitoring and controlling the project during execution.

Related: How to Measure the Success (or Failure) of Your Projects

One purpose for KPIs is to allow you to validate that distributed project team members are efficiently and effectively performing their work. Another purpose is to identify trends, both positive and negative, that may affect the project itself. Both are very important when you have team members working from multiple locations.

To develop effective KPIs, you will need to spend some time evaluating what the critical success factors are that will make your specific project team effective. Some examples include:

  • Billable to non-billable hours
  • % milestones met on time
  • % of weekly coordination calls attended
  • # of deliverables returned for rework / total # of deliverables

From my experience, keeping the KPIs simple to measure, limited in number, and tailored to the critical success factors yield the greatest return on investment of time. More importantly, you and your project team will have objective means by which to measure performance and hopefully lead-turn any negative trends before they manifest in a problem on the project.

Create Standard Operating Procedures and Templates

I am a large proponent for standardization when it comes to governance.

Project governance is more than an oversight function aligned with an organization’s governance model over the project life cycle as Project Management Institute (PMI) defines it. A better definition of what project governance is, comes from the U.K. Association of Project Management:

Governance refers to the set of policies, regulations, functions, processes, procedures and responsibilities that define the establishment, management and control of projects, programs and portfolios.

This definition of governance captures what right looks like and furthers my belief that to be an effective project manager, one needs to have standardized policies, processes, techniques, and templates – P2T2.

On a distributed project team, the implementation of P2T2 ensures that actions and deliverables look alike regardless who generates them or where they come from. As with expectation setting, original thought isn’t desired when it comes to governance. Instead, standardization is desired.

Not only is less energy expended developing new P2T2 on every project, you have the opportunity to determine which polices, procedures, techniques or templates boost efficiency and project success, and which ones hinder it. For the LEAN process types, this allows you to continuously improve your project management.

Related: 4 Guiding Principles for Leading Remote Project Teams

For the distributed team member, it carries expectations further to how they will do their work. Even if you are leading creatives on an innovation project, you cannot accept the risk that comes from having each team member do their own thing when it comes to generating meeting notes or formats for project deliverables.

If your company does not have a Sharepoint with examples of policies, procedures, techniques and templates, start one now. Use the project you are managing to create the baseline from which you can adjust during the next project.

Develop a Communications Management Plan

One critical governance plan for a distributed project team is the communications management plan. If you’re going to spend time developing just one plan, make it this one.

Distributed project teams are automatically at a disadvantage because they cannot take advantage of the multitude of informal communiques that take place between collocated project team members every day. So, to make the most out of the communications that do occur, it’s essential that a well socialized and staffed communications plan be developed.

Related: 6 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills Today

The plan needs to address the following elements at a minimum:

  • The meeting schedule to include location-adjusted times. If you’re team is comprised of people in different time zones, ensure you account for daylight savings, as not all locations change at the same time.
  • Communications content. Leveraging your templates and procedures from P2T2, standardize the content for meetings and emails. For meetings, ensure there is an agenda and at least a record of actions and decisions (ROADs) generated. On emails, establish templates for transmitting issues, RFIs, and other project-related communications. Doing so makes it easier for the recipients to process the email because they won’t have to spend time determining what’s required, or what action is required.
  • Communications methods. With a multitude of communications methods available, determine what the right mix is for your team. This might be email, VTC, phone and an IM system. Perhaps it’s phone only. Whatever method, identify it in the plan and address the back-up method in case the primary is not available.
  • Communications platform. Identify a primary and secondary platform for conducting communications to ensure resilience if one system is off line. Nothing is more frustrating than hosting a call with tens of stakeholders, only to have the primary system go down and no back-up available.

Governance can be a challenge even for projects where everyone is working out of the same office. If you are leading a distributed project team, investing time in developing governance during the initiating and planning stages of the project will mitigate risks that otherwise will cost you time and money during execution and closeout.

Celebrating Project Success: 5 Things You Can Do

One of the by-products of being an engineer, a project manager, and having served over two decades in the military is that I tend to focus on what’s going wrong, or could go wrong, on a project instead of acknowledging project success.

While this is a great mind-set for solving problems and performing risk management, in the realm of managing people it falls short. Really, who wants a manager who’s always focusing on what one is doing wrong, or might do wrong?

That doesn’t sound like the type of manager I want to work for.  It also doesn’t sound like the type of manager that I want to be.

The skills of problem recognition and solving seem to come easy to engineers and project managers, a by-product of training and personality. What project team members want is direction, adequate resources, and a manager who’s willing to celebrate project success no matter how small. This takes a little bit of committed focus, preparation and training to develop the skills for acknowledging, and celebrating, when things go right.

Celebrating Project Success One Win at a Time

We all know that projects are discrete events with an established start and finish. The natural tendency is to focus only on kickoffs and completions. In my industry, the architectural/engineering/construction industry, we hold a ground-breaking ceremony to celebrate a project start and a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new building.

But what if the project you’re working on has a long execution period? It’s not unusual for a construction project to take two or more years to complete. Are there not points for celebration that fall in between breaking ground and cutting ribbon?  The answer is a definite yes. There are a lot of points for celebrating project success, as well as individual success.

There are numerous individual, team, and project activities that present opportunities to celebrate. Your job as a successful project manager is to be prepared to capitalize on these opportunities to create both culture and camaraderie on the project team.

[Related: Ask a PM: How Do I Raise My Team’s Morale?]

While the Project Management Office may not have recognition and celebration on the priority list, you need to put it there. Celebrations and recognitions don’t need to be elaborate, they just need to occur. Here are five actions you can take to celebrate your project success and your project team.

Key Milestones

Breaking out the gold shovels at the start of a project and the gold scissors at the end of a project signify two key milestones. However, there are going to be other key milestones on your projects and these present opportunities for celebration.

On a program I worked on, one key milestone was the award of the actual design and construction contract itself. The team worked very hard and there was a lot of high drama to even get to that point. This served as a prime point for celebrating project success, the team was able to make the contract award by the target date.

On your projects, identify key milestones and choose those that are make-or-break when it comes to project success. These will be prime opportunities for you to celebrate when the team hits the milestone successfully.

Letters of Appreciation

Project team members send the vast majority, maybe all, of their correspondence via email. While email can remain forever in the digital realm, it will never replace receipt of a hard copy letter of thanks. I used letters of appreciation throughout my career to recognize someone in word and ink for a job well done.

The letter doesn’t need to be a two-page treatise, just a few words recognizing a specific act or level of performance that is contributing to project success. Not certain where to begin? Do some research on the web for letters of appreciation and begin developing your own templates.

[Related: How to Measure the Success (or Failure) of a Project]

I’ve developed several over the years so they’re ready to go, when needed. One note: while the letters are a simple and easy way to recognize someone’s contribution to project success, don’t over use them. Plan to send them only for successful achievement of prominent milestones, or actions, on the project.

Certificates of Appreciation

Whereas letters of appreciation are to be used as recognition of a significant act between you and the recipient, certificates of appreciation are a great way to share individual recognition with the entire team. You might consider giving a project team member a certificate of appreciation to celebrate her passing the Project Management Professional certification exam, or achieving a significant milestone on her portion of a project.

Instead of keeping the recognition between the two of you, this is an opportunity to recognize the performance in front of the entire team in a simple ceremony. People generally enjoy celebrations and they serve as a great opportunity to socialize.

Birthdays and Fridays

Events such as birthdays are another opportunity to bring the team together to celebrate success and recognize milestones, albeit a personal milestone.  I’ve found that team recognition of birthdays to be a great way again to put focus on a member and allow the team the opportunity to stand-down and appreciate each other’s company.

If you want to find another reason to celebrate, then choose a Friday.  In several organization’s I’ve worked in over my career, one or two Friday’s a month were chosen as a time for the entire team to share stories over a beverage.  We called them “First Friday” or “Final Friday” and they served as opportunities each month to celebrate wins, review our failures, and assess where the team is headed in an informal environment.

Hails and Farewells

Project teams are comprised of people with lives: families, hobbies, aspirations, and goals. It’s very important for a project manager to remember this amidst the need to monitor scope, schedule and cost.

One way for you to recognize people is through a hail and farewell ceremony.  The frequency of these events will depend on the size of your team and staffing churn. The event serves as a formal way of recognizing the arrival of new team members and departure of seasoned team members.  These are great venues to also present certificates of appreciation and celebrating project success as a team.

Project management equals leadership. It is well recognized that successful project managers are leaders.  One of the hallmarks of a good leader is a person who puts others first and recognizes each individual’s contribution to the team.

[Related: How to Manage Chaos: Advice on PM Conundrums]

Maybe it’s my upbringing in the military, where taking care of one’s Airmen was both a responsibility and a privilege.  It’s in that environment that I learned celebrating and recognizing team performance and individual success is vitally important for building camaraderie and keeping everyone focused on achieving project success.

Your role as a project manager is more than just managing the project triangle.  It’s leading people.  When you support and champion others selflessly, celebrate wins, and recognize success routinely, you’ll likely find that your work to deliver a project to scope, within budget and on time become just a bit easier.

Looking for more articles like this? Get 30 pages about leadership, teamwork, project management, and navigating career condundrums here.

The Five Truths of Project Leadership

Leadership is one of those words that we come across that has a multitude of meanings. Does it mean to give direction? Does it mean to set a vision and motivate others? Or, does it mean what it meant to Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”? How about it means all of these, and much, much more when it comes to project leadership.

I’ve had the great fortune to be in leadership positions right from the start of my project management career. Leading infrastructure projects in the military afforded me the luxury of learning leadership through the best teachers of all – experience and mistake. Two decades of applied leadership in projects and programs has taught me five project leadership truths.

Five Project Leadership Truths

There are a multitude of ways to impart better project leadership, even if the title “project manager” isn’t hanging outside your cubicle. Here are the five project leadership truths I’ve picked up through experience and observation:

1. Lead informally

Leadership is never tied to a position on the organizational chart or a title in the project team. The minute you believe this to be the case, you’ve abdicated your responsibility as a project professional. In project teams, it’s absolutely essential that you be an active, vocal member participating in the give-and-take that defines the planning and execution of any project. I learned through mistake that to not speak up and assert my thoughts can result in wasted resources.

As a project leader, I look for project team members to be actively involved in discussions. The reason is simple – someone may have the input that will be the best course of action in a situation or may be the risk mitigation strategy that’s needed to keep a project on vector.

You can encourage informal leadership in your project teams by setting Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the behavior of the team members. These might include:

  • Attack assumptions and facts, not people.
  • Everyone will have a chance to speak.
  • There are stupid questions – the one’s not asked.

If you’re a project team member and not the manager, you may not be able to set ROE. In this case, you need to be more refined in how you insert yourself into the dialog. You also need to be prepared by doing your research and staff work.

Project leadership requires one to be prepared, as much as it is about setting vision and direction. If you want to be an informal leader, show up to meetings more prepared than anyone else then follow these golden rules of informal project leadership:

  • Be courteous and respectful.
  • Attack assumptions and facts, not people.
  • Don’t use hyperbole or make statements you can’t back with staff work.

2. Observe, learn, then make changes.

If you’re in a project manager role, or in a position to make changes to a project team’s composition or structure, you wield a massive amount of power. In your hands, you hold the power to derail a project, alienate a project team, and upend a client’s desired benefits. You also hold the power to make project planning and execution more efficient, forge a united project team, and deliver exceptional benefits to the client.

One of the quickest ways to alienate people and derail a project for a project manager is to make changes to process and team structure without first observing and learning about the current state. In my mind, this is project leadership rule #1. I’ve been on the receiving end of many a manager who, upon assuming the mantle of leadership, began changing processes, shifting people around into new positions and essentially upending business-as-usual to make it completely unusual business!

[Further Reading: How to Lead Multiple Projects and Teams]

From these bad experiences, I adopted a more refined way to adjust the project environment: observe and learn.

If you do not observe and learn about the way a project is being managed, it’s truly impossible to make changes without having a better than even chance that the outcome will be what you desire.

Remember, there’s one project resource that can actively work to derail your best plans – project team members. Materials, equipment, and time cannot. If you forget that other humans have a vote in how processes are applied and project hierarchies are established, you will face a very challenging time of enacting your changes.

To enhance your ability in shaping the project environment and team, observe and learn before you change things.

3. Be flexible, but rigid.

Leadership is about setting direction, providing objectives, and motivating others to do something because, as Eisenhower says, “he wants to do it”. Leadership isn’t about control. Quite the contrary, leadership is about flexibility – letting others lead and make mistakes, learn, and develop their capacity to manage and lead.

It’s easy for a key tenant of management – control – to creep in and take over one’s leadership style. Because you’re focused on controlling the schedule, cost, and quality, it’s an easy leap to controlling your team through micro-management. You might be able to get away with this on simple projects, however, the more complex they become, the less success you’ll have controlling the team and still being effective in managing the project.

[Further Reading: 8 Tips for New Team Leaders]

This is where leadership has to take over. Through project leadership you set a vision and objectives (controls), then you let delegated project team members move out. You give them the responsibility (control) to do what they need to do to meet the objectives and vision (control) you’ve set. Your control is the vision and objectives you establish. Your flexibility is letting the other person sort out how to achieve the vision and objectives.

Not everything on a project requires hands-on control. This is a vitally important lesson for all project managers to learn if they want to move to increasing complex projects or major programs. Set the vision, let others achieve it.

4. Leadership on the project starts right where you’re standing.

Project managers have leadership gravitas simply because of their position title. If you’re a young project team member, you may believe that because you’re a back-bencher you aren’t in a leadership position.

And, you’d be wrong thinking this.

Leadership isn’t a position and it isn’t something that comes only with age. It starts right where you are standing today. Leadership is a set of skills, but it’s also a mindset. If you don’t believe you’re a leader, then you’re right. If you do believe you’re a leader, then you’re also right. Which belief do you hold?

In your next project meeting hold the mindset of the leader. Arrive better prepared than you’ve ever been. Challenge yourself to bring facts to the discussion, to respectfully engage in constructive dialog and to build collaboration.

The old cliché is, “if you build it they will come.” It’s old because it’s true. If you act as a leader you will behave as a leader and others will follow your lead.

5. Leadership is a team effort.

No one involved in project delivery does so alone. We are all members of a team, regardless of the number of stakeholders involved. Your project team may be two people, or it might involve thousands. Whatever the number, the basic truth is the same – leadership is a team effort.

[Further Reading: 11 Ways to Raise Your Team’s Morale]

You cannot effectively lead a team without following someone else effectively. This holds true whether you’re a new professional just joining the project team, or the CEO who’s been at it for decades. Each of us follows someone else’s direction.

To harness the benefits of informal project leadership, project managers must be willing to let others take the helm and step back when the situation calls for it. At the same time, project members must be willing to be leaders — to step up when the situation dictates.

7 Actions to Take When Joining a Project Underway

Many of us dream of becoming the director for a major program with numerous projects, a staff, and an opportunity to create something from nothing. In this dream, which I know I’ve had on more than one occasion, you get to select your team, develop the processes and procedures that will be used by the team, and shape the development of the Project Management Office. The ideal situation.

Unfortunately, this dream is just that for most project managers—a dream. More often than not, you won’t be able to pick your team, establish the processes, or develop the PMO. Instead, you’ll find yourself doing bits and pieces of these at the same time you’re scrambling to deal with a program that’s already under way.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of initiating a program one time. The remainder of the programs I inherited during the planning or the benefits delivery phase. Far from ideal, becoming involved in a project or a program that is already underway requires one to focus more diligently on a few key elements.

Taking Lead of a Project Underway

Project management is challenging regardless when you assume the leadership role. There’s a mountain of literature written about the skills effective project managers leverage when leading a project and it all seems to assume that you’re in the game from the start. This won’t always be the case. For example, maybe you’re hired into a new project manager role on an already awarded contract or you’re called on to replace a non-performing project manager.

7 Knowledge Areas for Leadership on Projects Underway

Taking lead on a project already underway relies on the same skills that you’d call on if you’d been on the project from the beginning. However, there are seven specific knowledge areas that are most important and will require your attention.

1. Evaluate the governance framework.

One cannot assume that every project or program will have a well-defined governance structure in place by the time it gets underway. Regardless of what phase you join a project, make sure you evaluate the governance framework to determine if it’s properly structured.

This means that the right stakeholders are involved at the right levels; the right meeting frequency is in place; there are clear terms of reference spelling out roles and responsibilities of each echelon of the framework; and decisions are being made at the appropriate level. On complex projects, it’s vitally important that governance is appropriately structured so that senior stakeholders are informed at the right time and in the right fashion for making timely decisions.

2. Discover the lessons learned.

A project underway will have generated some lessons learned, so find out what these are. Talk with project team members and key stakeholders who have been with the project since initiation to determine what the key positives and negatives have been on the project. Looking at lessons learned while the project is still underway will help determine if there are possible adjustments to be made that have been missed by the staff.

You can also bring in lessons learned from other projects you’ve successfully managed, or best practices used by other project teams, to bolster performance on your project. In short, don’t assume that performance enhancements have been applied by the project team. Look for opportunities and work with your team to implement them.

3. Develop relationships.

Project managers spend the vast majority of their time communicating with other people and developing relationships. When you’re involved on a project from concept onwards, you have the opportunity to develop relationships with other stakeholders while the project is taking shape.

When you join a project underway, however, you have to insert yourself into relationships that have already formed. The longer a project has been underway, the more difficult this is, as team members have more shared experience together.

Take time to identify the most influential stakeholders. Then, focus on developing relationships with each of them. The process for doing this will vary, so you need to apply your emotional intelligence skills so as not to make any social or professional mistakes.

I like to start with informal office calls in one-on-one or small-group settings. I follow this with working lunches or group dinners. The main goal is developing rapport with the most influential people outside of formal project meetings. The benefit from doing this is a more cordial working relationship during formal meetings and a greater likelihood of collaboration when challenging situations arise.

4. Establish yourself in meetings.

Early in my Air Force career I heard the saying, “Never let your lack of experience keep you from speaking with authority.”

I’m not entirely certain, but I don’t think this was a joke. As a second lieutenant, you lack real-world experience in leading people and dealing with situations. Yet, there you are, the officer in charge with people looking at you to lead them through the situation.

I think this saying applies for the project manager that joins a project underway. You’ll immediately be looked at as the person in charge and depending on the situation, you may be called on to make key decisions right away. This requires you to establish yourself quickly in meetings and other venues so that everyone knows you’re on the task.

This doesn’t mean you need to be overbearing or not listen to other people! Quite the contrary. You’ll need to really listen to others and take their inputs for consideration (see the last point below).

5. Lead the change.

Regardless of what you do as the new project manager on a project underway, you’ll initiate change. The very fact that you’re now in the project manager role is a change, so any adjustments you make in process or procedure will be a change from business as usual.

To ensure your changes are successful, be cognizant of the environment under which the project is functioning and adjust your leadership style to accommodate this. You want your changes to make a positive impact on the performance of the project, so you can’t afford to have them derail because of delivery.

Change management is an essential part of project management. It’s also a key component of effective leadership on projects already underway.

6. Focus on providing value.

As you assess the project’s performance and the state of your project team, look for opportunities to provide value. This means looking for underserved areas of expertise or leadership. Perhaps the project has lacked someone with a strong sense of project management fundamentals; here’s an opportunity to engage your team in applying standard processes and procedures. Maybe your team hasn’t been properly recognized for successful performance; here’s an opportunity to gain senior stakeholder recognition and develop team confidence.

Don’t invest time adding value to activities that are already well-served by your staff or other stakeholders. It’s not only inefficient, but may very will alienate some of the very people you want to build relationships with because you’re perceived to be taking their role! Consistently look for opportunities to serve.

7. Listen and observe…then act.

I’ve saved the most important skill for leading a project underway for last. If you’re successful at accomplishing this, you stand a better-than-even chance of being successful on the other six. Effective project managers tend to have a penchant for taking action. That’s what makes them successful when others are paralyzed by indecision.

When you begin leading a project that’s already underway, however, you need to take pause before acting. Most issues that arise will have a history preceding them and you need to know that history to act effectively. Just as important, project team members and influential stakeholders will develop a more positive assessment of your leadership if you’re perceived to listen, observe, and then act.

Face it, none of us are impressed with someone who steps into a leadership role and immediately acts without the full picture. There are only a few situations where this is warranted and you’ll know it if you’re in one.

To Master Information Management on Your Project, Do These 4 Things

Knowledge is power. However, for many project managers, maneuvering into this position of control can be a serious challenge that doesn’t go away just by being effective in managing email or being able to read a pivot table.

The sheer quantity of data and information that is processed in a day on even a moderate sized project can be intimidating. Scale this up to a major program and the data flow can be simply overwhelming.

[Further Reading: What is Little Data? And Why Do PMs Need It?]

There are plenty of strategies to optimize the use of your valuable time for focusing on the most important issues. Time management is a highly important skill every project manager must master, deciding for themselves which philosophy, skills, and tools they’ll use to maximize productivity. While really important for effective project management, time management doesn’t solve the problem of too much data and information.

Too much data and information is as challenging for project managers as too many meetings. The sheer volume becomes counterproductive and in some situations, dangerous.

An equally important skill project managers must cultivate is information management. Without solid information management skills, a project manager can be buried under input and lose sight of the forest for the trees, a situation referred to as information blindness.

Information Management Skill Eliminates Information Blindness

Information blindness happens when we’re presented with too much information in a format that isn’t easy to comprehend. For example, let’s say that you are used to seeing construction status reports in a quad-chart format with schedule in a Gantt-chart format and a stop-light chart depicting that relative status of key tasks from the WBS. However, on a new project the construction managers are submitting the status reports in written, bullet list format.

You’re used to seeing the information in graphical format. Now you’re receiving the same type of information in written form, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s not that you can’t understand the data. It’s that the information is coming to you in a format that you can’t easily comprehend. To solve this problem, you’ll have to either force yourself to digest the long-form version or have the data re-packaged into the graphical/tabular format you’re used to.

A similar situation of information blindness arises when the data is presented in a way that might be understood, but doesn’t generate the correct decision-making knowledge in the individual viewing the data. Imagine a change management panel viewing a project update that uses stoplight charts to depict the number and cost of changes on a portfolio of projects under implementation.

The stoplight charts concisely convey the project information and look great, but they do not convey data that members on the change management panel really need to better understand specific cost and scope variances for individual projects. They may discern general cost and scope trends, but can’t ask the right questions about individual projects. The lack of information quality reduces decision quality.

Information blindness can also afflict us on even the most mundane issues. Ever feel overwhelmed by too many choices when out shopping? I know this from a funny, personal story. My wife and I had just moved back to the U.S. after living overseas for seven years and were visiting a grocery store for the first time. We hit the cereal aisle and were faced with cereals we didn’t know existed or that anyone would even need! In fact, there were so many, we went with Cheerios, a default.

The issue in each of these scenarios has to do with absorbing data and making sense of it. Both engineers and project managers share this problem. We’re blessed with an analytical mind and amazing technology that gives us more information than any one of us can consume.

[Further Reading: How Big Data Gives PMs an Edge in Manufacturing]

Unfortunately, all that information combined with our natural bent to want to make sense of it can lead to shut downs with the data or information isn’t readily consumable in the right format needed for decision-quality knowledge.

Give any of us too much information, too many choices, or package data in way we’re not able to comprehend, and our minds will work to simplify the complex. In some cases, this will be defaulting to a decision choice we are comfortable with, although it may be wrong, or simply not choose at all.

How do you solve the problem of too much information or incorrectly packaged information? You do that be minding the gap. That is, by creating disfluency.

Mind the Gap for Optimal Information Management

Disfluency is essentially reworking data or information in a way that makes it more effectively absorbed. I came across this concept while reading Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter, Faster, Better. In the book, Duhigg presents various examples of how individuals enhanced their effectiveness in decision making or performance on cognitive tasks by manipulating data and information in new ways in order for it to make sense.

When one is faced with data, information or a situation that is familiar, the tendency is for our mind to default to the simplest response by relying on a script, or heuristic. Heuristics help us move through life without having to consciously think through every single action we take. So, when faced with too much, or ineffectively packaged, data or information, our mind will seek the simplest response…which may be to simply do nothing.

As a project manager, you will definitely be faced with information that is not ready for you to comprehend it. The way to solve this problem is to create a gap – disfluency – with the information so you can more readily absorb it.

To create a disfluency with data or information, you need to manipulate it into a different format in order to put in a format that makes sense to you. Often times this means forcibly slowing down the mind by rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty with the data or information. For example, in any situation I’m faced with where I have to absorb a large volume of important information I handwrite it out.

That’s right, I write.

It may seem archaic to pick-up pen and handwrite out information in a notebook, but the physical act of my writing the information creates the gap in thought I need to absorb the information. I did this when preparing for my professional engineer’s licensure exam nearly twenty years ago, did it in preparation for my PMP exam, and I’m doing it now as I prepare to sit for the Program Management certification exam. For me, I create disfluency by hand writing data and information.

Besides handwriting out data and information, one can also create disfluency by:

Talking Through the Data or Information. Often times talking with a project team member about project data or information can help unlock insights that were hidden. You’re creating a disfluent environment by having a conversation about the information with another person versus simply looking at it on your computer screen or a print out.

Talking through issues helps create a gap because you can’t talk as quickly as you can think. To coherently articulate thoughts, you have to slow down and “make sense” of the data and information. Doing this forces the mind to slow down how it processes information allowing for new patterns or insights to emerge.

Walk, Work Out, or Write. I’ve already touched on hand writing information in order to create a gap, which happens because the process of handwriting is much slower than reading, so the mind has to process the information more slowly than by just reading it.

You can also create gaps by taking a walk or hitting the gym. You may already be attuned to these two tactics and if not, you might want to take them up. I tend to opt for the work out option, hitting the gym mid-day to generate a mental break from the daily grind. However, I’ve also found the walk to be a highly effective way to disconnect the mind from information.

Feel free to research the biochemical and cognitive reasons why each of these tactics work – just know that empirically you’re likely to discover that they do. I lived in Germany for a couple years prior to moving to the U.K. and lived near research centers for HP and IBM. While I’d go for runs midday on the trails in the area, I’d come across scores of people from these centers out for walks or runs, as well. Perhaps these engineers and project managers were on to something.

Give the Information Some Space. You’ve likely experienced a situation where you were working on an information-intensive issue and hit a wall, not able to come to a solution or feeling that you understood what you were looking at. Frustrated, you walked away from the information for the day, week or longer. Coming back to the information you immediately saw the crux of the issue and how to proceed. Success.

The gap created by giving the information space provided your mind with time to absorb the information and subconsciously process it. Returning to it, you were able to immediately have the insight that you lacked when the information was either too new or simply too complex to quickly absorb. Next time you hit a road block in making sense of data or information, let it age like a fine wine by giving your mind a gap between initial viewing and responding.

Mind Mapping. Mind mapping is a process of graphically representing data and information. It allows one to visually organize information into hierarchical or nodal groupings. This activity provides disfluency through manipulation of information from whatever form it may currently exist into a visual format. It’s helpful for identifying relationships between components and developing new insights from how components of information relate to different aspects of a project or situation you are working on.

The intent behind these tactics is to create a gap between the information and the response. This is done in order to allow the mind an opportunity to generate different outcomes or glean new insights. If you’ve ever had an “aha” moment with an issue on which you’ve been wrestling with, then you’ve experienced the benefit of disfluency.

Information management is more than just a skill for how to handle email or where to file documents. It also includes how one works with data and information in order to create decision-quality knowledge.

6 Things You Can Do to Keep Challenging Personalities in Check

It doesn’t matter what field you operate in, as soon as you bring in creative experts the potential for both personality and technical conflict increases. The why is understandable: truly creative designers and engineers who have established themselves as experts will tend to have a very strong mental model of what should happen on a project. Sometimes this vision of the future conflicts with the reality of the project scope, schedule and cost.

When this happens, it’s not a human resources issue. It’s a leadership and a project team issue that you need to resolve.

So, let’s start with why some creative-types generate so much drama in the project team. Coming from the perspective of a “creative-type”, I can understand why some skilled engineers and designers can be difficult to work with:

  • Feelings of not being heard has led them to become the loudest voice in the charrette.
  • They have a sense of entitlement built on a track record of success in their designs. This has now gone to their head and they let their ego run rampant.
  • The individual is truly a savant who happens to have a low emotional intelligence (EI) functionality.
  • They are a product of their past, with previous project managers allowing them to behave outside team norms because their technical or aesthetic designs are astounding.

Challenging Creative People Make for Better Project Deliverables

I developed my project management and leadership bona fides in an organization where you didn’t have the chance to simply drop people from the project team. It was my job to create excellence from the people presented, no matter their technical or interpersonal skills. While you may operate in an environment where you can vote challenging people off the team at the first sign of resistance, don’t.

Leadership isn’t about eliminating dissent in a team, it’s about forging a team that accepts and thrives on supportive dissent. What’s that? It is dissent intended to challenge or eliminate group-think and to ultimately lead the project team towards delivering the best quality design that meets scope, schedule, cost and quality. This isn’t going to happen in a homogeneous team where no one questions the design approach or unique risk mitigation strategies.

It’s important to have a status-quo-challenging creative person on the team. It is equally important to ensure that you set parameters, expectations and keep the creative team member on vector.

How to Lead a Creative Team Member for Team Success

In my mind, project leadership entails maximizing the effectiveness of each person on the project team. Most situations will not give you the luxury of selecting each member of the team, so you will be faced with forging an effective team with the people you’re assigned.

Even in situations where you recruit and hire specific team members or bring in outside consultants, you can miss the challenging personality trait and be faced with a challenging personnel problem.

Short of kicking the challenge off the team, let’s consider some actual leadership actions you can take to set up the creative person and entire project team for success:

Establish Expectations Early. Have a one-on-one meeting with the person to explain the norms of behavior, language, etiquette, and meeting protocols. If necessary, set up some type of sign that you give the other person when they are starting to agitate or stir the pot too much – e.g. tugging your left ear lobe or saying a phrase like “that’s interesting” while you stare directly at them.

Main point: ensure they know you will not tolerate disrespect of your project team members.

Prepare the Project Team for Personalities. If you know that a particular incoming project team member will be a personality challenge, don’t surprise the project team. For instance, let’s say you have a design or engineering consultant attending an upcoming charrette who you know to be a challenging personality.

It’s incumbent on you as the project manager to make the project team aware and to let them know why this person is being brought in. Talk about how you’ll react, as a team, to awkward situations (e.g. hot tempers or open challenges to opinions or technical ideas) so everyone is prepared.

As the project manager, visualize how you will react to these situations and at what point you’ll intervene to call a coffee break. Main point: prep the team for the personality and keep your eye on delivering a successful project.

Set a Strict Agenda in Meetings and Charrettes. If you have a full-time project team member who is a personality challenge, ensure meetings are run with a very strict agenda. This means both topical (what is discussed) and time (how long).

Don’t allow a meeting to run any longer than scheduled and if the challenging personality starts to pontificate or derail the meeting, give them the “sign” the two of you established in your one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, simply tell the person that the issue at hand will go “off-line”, meaning it will be discussed outside the current meeting. If you have a temporary team member participating in a charette, such as a consultant or individual on loan from a different division, consider having an outside facilitator run the event.

This person needs to be one with the skills for working with creative designers or engineers, and thus understands how to manage technical personalities and still deliver highly effective results.

When All Else Fails, Document. Not every situation with challenging people works out and you need to be prepared for this. That preparation starts with documenting the individual’s outbursts, inability to work collaboratively, or other instances of friction.

Be certain to highlight what the specific, negative impact is to the project in each instance. You can’t simply indicate that on “Tuesday at 3 p.m., Ted was a jerk”. Be specific and concise, while also being unemotional.

The reason you’re documenting is so that you have a record of performance you can use in private consultation with the challenging individual. If the person is part of your company, make certain that the individuals supervisor (and yours) are informed of the general situation as it develops.

Bad news isn’t like a fine wine, it doesn’t get better as it ages.

Limit Contact. Depending on your project, you may be able to limit the number of people who have to work directly with the challenging person. For instance, let’s say your project has multiple sub-components.

An outside consultant with a challenging personality is only involved in one of these sub-components and that only involves three members of your ten-person project team. Don’t expose everyone to challenging person! Limit the friction and keep the team moving forward.

When All Else Fails, Fire the Person. If, despite your best leadership efforts you can see that the project may fail because of the friction the challenging person is generating, sack them. Terminate their project team membership and ship them back to their division or terminate their contract.

If the individual is part of your company, and you have been documenting performance and sharing your concern with their supervisor, arrange a meeting with HR and their supervisor to close-out the situation. If the individual is an outside contractor, terminate the agreement with specific details on why and the negative impact on the overall project.

In the end, successful, challenging projects require subject matter experts who themselves can be challenging. Effective project managers expect that some people will bring challenging personalities into the project team and visualize how they will handle these situations. Treat this preparation just as you would treat developing risk mitigation strategies. By doing this, you will be prepared for channeling the creative energy people bring to the project while at the same time minimizing the potential for collateral damage that might derail your project.

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