Author: Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin writes the blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. Find out more about the coaching she offers to project professionals on her website.

5 Time Tracking Myths Debunked

Hello! You’re probably here because you don’t track time on your projects. I’d like to convince you that you should.

I get why you don’t – I really do. For a long time, I resisted timesheets too. They took too long to fill in and weren’t accurate enough to use for any serious management information.

We used spreadsheets. We don’t do it that way any longer.

Time tracking is all grown up, and it’s a totally different game today. Here are 5 of the most common myths about tracking time. It’s time (did you see what I did there?) to shake off those limiting beliefs and embrace digital time clocks!

Honestly, it’s worth it. This first myth will tell you why.

Myth #1: Time Tracking Adds No Value

I hear this myth the most, so let’s address it first. Time tracking for time tracking’s sake adds no value. That’s the same as anything else you do that delivers no benefit and is just an administrative overhead – any process can fall into this category. And you strip those out pretty quickly, right?

There is immense value in time tracking, if you know what you are looking for.

First, tracking time on projects records how much effort was spent on particular tasks. LiquidPlanner has intelligent scheduling, and the data feeds into that. The more data you feed the engine, the more accurate your schedule becomes. The better your schedule, the easier it is for you to plan upcoming tasks, anticipate future problems, and help steer your project over the finish line.

Second, tracking time gives you accurate management and status reports. Automating reporting takes a whole extra task off your plate. And off your team’s plate too. They’ll no longer need to complete timesheets and report their hours to you. Because you’ll already know.

Third, you get to find out how much time work takes. This is gold! You can plan better. You can put together more accurate proposals for new clients. You can schedule your recruitment based on upcoming work and be able to justify to senior management why you need the extra hands. And you can be confident when you tell clients when their job will finish.

Truth: If you set it up for success, you’ll get a ton of valuable data out of your time tracking system.

Myth #2: Time Tracking Leads to Employee Burnout

You think your team is going to work more hours because they are tracking their hours?

That might happen for a week. Then they’ll realise that you aren’t measuring them on hours worked, or expecting them to do more. Modern businesses judge by results and help employees be productive while maintaining a work/life balance.

Share the data from the timesheets with the team so they can see what they are being used for and how helpful the data is for their future estimates. You need to help them move beyond thinking timesheets are a tool to beat them with. See Myth #1 for all the good stuff you get from time tracking.

Truth: The benefits far outweigh any frustrations the team might have at the beginning.

Myth #3: Time Tracking Is Only Ever a Guess Because People “Forget” To Do It

Nope. Putting off your timesheet is an excuse that might have worked a few years back. But tech moves on.

LiquidPlanner makes it easy to report your time because time tracking is built in right across the app. It’s just there in front of you.
Start the timer when you start work on a particular item and update your timesheet in real time. The system will also prompt you to add time as you add each task.

No more excuses. You don’t have to guess. You just have to click and start tracking in real time.

Truth: You can track activity in real time if you make the system simple to use.

Myth #4: Time Tracking Is All About Micromanagement

While I know there must be micromanagers out there, I haven’t come across them in the nimble organizations that make a success of their industry. They don’t last. And if your boss is great in all other respects, having timesheets isn’t going to suddenly make her a micromanager.

I guarantee that your normally-sensible line manager is not going to pour over your timesheets like they’re the latest J. K. Rowling novel. He might get over excited at first with all the lovely rich data that’s coming out of them, but very soon you’ll all come to expect that level of management information to help you make the best decisions.

Truth: Managers are looking for trends and big picture data, not how you spent your last hour on Friday afternoon.

Myth #5: Time Tracking Takes Too Much Time

Well, it might, if you ask people to keep spreadsheets of their hours and then you have to collate the team’s timesheets manually each month. Ain’t no one got time for that!

But that’s old-style thinking. Cloud-based tools offer fast, slick solutions to tracking time, all of which take you minutes per week.
The Timesheet tab on the LiquidPlanner workspace lets you see a list of all your work sorted by weeks. Everything is there: your top priorities for the day, last week’s tasks, and what you’ve got planned for the future. It’s simple to add time to the tasks in this view, or add the hours as you work on the tasks if you prefer. You have options. Pick the one that works best for you or mix and match depending on how you are working that day.

Truth: You can complete your timesheets quickly if you use the right tools.

Time tracking’s all grown up. It’s frictionless. The hurdles and hoops are gone and the benefits are huge. What’s still holding you back from gaining a better view of how your business makes and spends money?

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Advice for Project Managers: How do I measure the success (or failure) of my projects?

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“Dear Elizabeth: I want to get better at measuring the success (or failure) of my projects. What project management metrics should I be focusing on? And how can I use these metrics to improve project performance?”

OK. I don’t mean to start off by being controversial, but you’re asking the wrong person.

It’s your project stakeholders who decide if your project is a success or a failure. So what you should be asking is: how will they judge me?

Do they care if you are late by a few weeks as long as you deliver something of supreme quality? Is it essential that you hit the delivery milestone by any means possible, even if that means sacrificing a few bits of functionality?
You can measure time taken to fix defects, number of change requests, deviation from schedule baseline, percent complete, burn rate, or anything else you want. These measures will give you some interesting management information and might help you manage the team. But if your sponsor is unhappy in the end, she won’t feel any better by you telling her you were under budget by 1.3 percent.

So, let’s split your question.

First, talk to your project sponsor and the important stakeholders about what they value. What do they want to get out of the project? How will they know if the project has been a success? Typically, they’ll judge on time, cost, or quality, but it could also be customer/staff satisfaction. Or, they might rate something else. When you know what it is, you can measure it, track it, and prove that you are doing it.

The thing to bear in mind here is that expectations will change as the project progresses. The sponsor who thinks he wants you to hit the delivery date at all costs might change his mind when he realizes he can have extra functionality that’s going to boost customer retention by 20 percent — if he’s prepared for the schedule to slip by a month.

You need to stay close to the expectations of your project decision makers. Keep checking in with them and seeing if their definition of success has changed. Talk to them often and tell them how you are doing against meeting the targets they set with you and the targets they think are important.

AskElizabethCTA

At the end of the day, the stakeholders decide if you met their needs and if the project did what they wanted. You can deliver something on time, on budget, and to the specified scope, and they will still be unhappy. I don’t want situation for you. So check it out with them in advance, and tailor what you measure to their expectations.

That will give you clarity on what success (or failure) looks like and how best to track it. But for your project management purposes, you probably want some other metrics to go on.

Performance metrics help you see how the team is doing and let you spot where there might be problems. If this is the first time you’ve really focused on measuring project performance, don’t make it too complicated. People hold up Earned Value as the way to go for the ultimate in performance tracking, but it’s overkill for most projects.

Try these:

Schedule Variance: Plot your baseline project schedule. Then track your actual performance. Measure the difference between where you thought you’d be and where you actually are. This can be represented as a discrete number of days (“We’re 10 days behind.”) or a percentage (“We’re 6 percent ahead of schedule.”).

Cost Variance: This is the same principle as schedule variance. First, establish your budget baseline. Then, track what you actually spend and compare the two. You’ll end up over- or underspent (it’s rare that you’ll be exactly spent in line with your baseline, but good for you if that happens). You can represent this as a fixed price (“We’re underspent by $5,000.”) or a percentage (“We’re 10 percent over budget.”).

Number of Change Requests: This useful measure offers an indication of how good your requirements were at the beginning. When people want to make a lot of changes, it means you didn’t really know what you were doing upfront. That might be an issue for you. It depends on the methodology you are using. Agile methods tend to be more flexible in dealing with change. Waterfall development methodologies are less good at coping with change to the extent that adding more changes late in the project can be very costly. Either way, tracking trends on the volumes of change requests will let you spot if it’s worth taking a deep dive into requirements or your backlog again.

When it comes to metrics, it’s the context that makes the knowledge valuable. Knowing you are six percent ahead of schedule is meaningless without some narrative that explains why. Perhaps you just cut a huge portion out of your scope, so it’s obvious that you are ahead–you have less work to do overall. Perhaps you got a new starter on the team who is picking up the tasks at a rapid pace (but costing you money on your resource line).

Whatever you choose to measure, make sure you can interpret it intelligently and use your professional judgment to help uncover what it really means for your project. Then you can explain it to your team, use the data in a helpful way, and make better decisions about how to manage your project.

I’m sorry if you just wanted a few easy answers! I think it’s better to give you a realistic view of how to manage successfully than a list of bullet points that make an attractive but pointless project dashboard.

Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketing@liquidplanner.com.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin is a project and programme manager with over a decade of experience. She writes about project management and careers at her website, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

Advice for Project Managers: Finding Mentors and Collecting Project Feedback

ADVICE_COLUMNIST (1)
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketing@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.


“Dear Elizabeth: I’d like to find a mentor to help advance my project management career. Do you have advice on what I should be doing to find the right person?”Searching for guidance

Dear Searching: Well done for deciding that you want to start a mentoring relationship. A mentor can definitely be a career boost, opening doors that weren’t there before.

But you’re correct. You’ll get the best out of mentoring if you can find the right person.

Finding a mentor should begin with an inventory of your needs and wants. What are your mentoring goals? Who do you respect? What area do you want to draw them from? What skills are needed to best serve and guide you in your career aims?

If your organization has a formal mentoring program, start there. In my experience it’s better to be in the formal system than outside it. Ask them to match you with a suitable mentor.

Don’t be afraid to say you want to switch if you don’t click with that person. An experienced mentor won’t take it personally. Good rapport is important. If it isn’t there, they’ll have felt it too.

If you don’t have a formal program to participate in, think about whether you want someone from inside or outside your organization. It may be easier to find someone internal, unless your firm is very small. External mentors can bring different perspectives, but they are harder to find unless you are prepared to pay for their time. Try going through your professional bodies or local networking groups. For example, Project Management Institute chapters’ mentoring programs match junior project managers with more experienced members.

If you’re looking within your organization, a good place to start is the peer group of your line manager or the next level up. Are there any managers in that group that you feel you could learn from? This comes back to your inventory of needs and wants. Do you need someone with deep domain or industry knowledge? Experience in project management? Or are you focused on building your business skills more broadly? Use your inventory to build a list of potential mentors.

When you’ve got a shortlist, just ask them! If they are interested, they’ll want to know what they are committing to before firmly saying yes. Have a frank discussion about expectations: how long and how often will you meet? Will it be over the phone or over email? Draft a mentoring agreement and discuss what you’re both hoping to achieve. That way, you both know what you’re getting into.

“Dear Elizabeth: I’d like to take a more formal approach to gathering my team’s feedback, especially at the close of projects. Do you have any suggestions for garnering constructive feedback?”Formal Feedback

Dear Formal: You need formal feedback on two things: the project management process itself (how the whole thing worked out for the team and what it was like to be ‘in’ the project management process as it unfolded) and the deliverables or outputs. Getting feedback on both of those will give you some great insights into how the project is going, but they need two different approaches.

It’s easiest to get feedback on the work you are doing and the deliverables you are creating. Add a standing agenda item to your regular team meetings and ask for feedback:

  • How are we doing with the scope of this project?
  • What’s the latest position on quality?
  • Are the customers satisfied with the outputs we are generating for them? How do we know?

You can also tailor these questions for your customers. Though you’ll want to ask them for feedback separately.

It’s less easy to get feedback on the project management aspects of the job. Sometimes people don’t understand those as well or can’t separate those from the output of their tasks. You can help get useful answers about this by asking probing questions:

Did we identify this risk in advance? If not, what could we have done differently so that we wouldn’t have got caught out? How did we end up in this situation? If we had managed communication more effectively on the project, would we have avoided it? So what should we be doing going forward to improve communication in the team?

These are examples; you’ll be able to think of some relevant to your project. The questions can be more challenging to identify and definitely more challenging to answer as they relate to working practices. No one likes to say that the way they did their job wasn’t as good as it could be.

So:

  • Manage the people in the room when you ask for constructive feedback. In my experience it works best when the most senior people on the team aren’t there. Talk to the sponsor or any senior managers separately.
  • Make it about the process, not the people doing the process. They couldn’t have done anything different (most of the time) because the process encourages them to work a particular way. Change the way you work to be more effective for everyone.
  • Encourage, listen and act! People will share if they think you are going to do something constructive and positive with the feedback. If they don’t see anything changing, what’s the point of them commenting on how things could be different?

You can get a head start on capturing formal lessons learned with this meeting agenda template designed specifically for lessons learned, and this meeting minutes template to record what came out of the discussion.

To help aspiring project managers, and accidental PMs build confidence and be great at what they do, we built the perfect handbook for you: Our Ultimate PM Guide!

Ultimate PM Guide

 

Advice for Project Managers: Soft Skills Needed for Success

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Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: I’m currently a technical project contributor, but I would like to be a project manager. In my experience, technical leads don’t always have the people skills necessary to manage teams and processes. What soft skills do I need to develop in order to be successful as a project manager? —Climbing the Career Ladder

Dear Climbing: First, congratulations on having clear career goals and knowing where you want to go. Being a project manager is a fantastic career move, if I do say so myself!

I think it’s also great that you are aware that people skills are important. Working on your interpersonal skills, and being aware of what’s needed to succeed as a project manager, will give you a huge advantage when it comes to being interviewed for the job.

So, what sort of skills should you be developing? Here are my top three.

Skill #1: Asking people to do things without being rude, especially when they don’t work for you.

You most likely will work in a matrix environment where the team members on the project have a line manager somewhere else in the business. They won’t work directly for you. Therefore, asking them to do anything is an exercise in tact and negotiation. It’s likely they also have day jobs to keep up with and other project managers asking for their time. Learn how to delegate work and get commitment to deliver tasks without being seen as domineering.

Skill #2: Noticing when people are struggling and stepping in to offer just the right amount of help.

No one likes to be micromanaged, but the alternative can be letting your team members get on with their work only to find out they weren’t actually doing anything after all. There is a fine balance between asking for updates to the point of annoying your team and leaving them to their own devices.

Work on finding the sweet spot between those two extremes. I recommend using weekly check-ins to ask the probing questions about progress and step in to keep things moving if you need to.

Being able to uncover and understand why progress isn’t happening is also important. It could be that the individual needs training, confidence, more time, less stress, or something else. It will be your job to identify those issues and support the team. You’ll need to know them well enough as individuals to be able to do that.

Skill #3: Being able to say the things no one else wants to say to protect the project and the team.

A huge part of being a project manager is communication skills. You need the confidence and communication skills to to speak up when it’s necessary. The sponsor wants a ridiculous change? It’s your job to explain why you think it’s ridiculous, but she can have it if she wants and the implications would be X, Y, and Z. The head of department wants everything delivered by Friday? When your team just spent a month working overtime to hit the next milestone, you know you’ll have mutiny if you push them harder. You’ll have to explain why that isn’t possible with the current resources.

You may need to have some tough discussions with your team too. It’s easy to talk about hitting milestones, delivering benefits, and creating awesome stuff. The hard part comes when you make mistakes and have to own up to them, when you need to say no to people, and when you have to challenge decisions and report failures.

You need to protect your team from the office politics that all this brings, so being able to handle conflict, stay unruffled, and yet still celebrate success all contribute to the interpersonal skills you’ll need to succeed as a PM.

Good luck!

AskElizabethCTA

Advice for Project Managers: How to Save Your Job, and Process vs Tool

Project Management Advice Column
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: Process or tool—which comes first? Our executive team disagrees about this every time we evaluate our project and work processes and start to consider software tools—current and new ones. I fall on the side that process comes first, then you use the right tool to support it. Others argue that you get the right tool and processes fall into place. What are your thoughts? – Process Fan

Dear Process Fan: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I think in this case that you’re both right. Or wrong. Whichever way you want to look at it.

Tools are often built around industry-standard best practices. Adopting your work processes to align with the way the tool works can add efficiencies. However, every business has its unique quirks and you might find that there’s a particularly critical process for you that isn’t an out-of-the-box feature.

If you were starting from scratch, I’d say that a tool can really help you set up your business for success, as the built-in processes will kick start your own project management approach.

Since you’re not starting from scratch, I would say that an iterative, evolving approach is the best. Accept that your business process may have to change to suit your tool, but where your processes are “better” than what your tool provides (whatever “better” means for you) then you may have to customize the solution to make it work smoothly.

Your challenge now becomes being able to help your executive team move beyond the processes/tools discussion and towards one that revolves around outcomes and business value. When you focus on your end goal – something that you do have in common! – you’re more likely to have productive conversations about how to get there.

Look for a tool that is going to grow with you as your needs change over time. You’re going to have to tweak both your processes and the way you use your software to get the best performance for your team.

AskElizabethCTA

 

Dear Elizabeth: Budgets are getting cut at my current job, and I’d like to stay around! I work as a senior-level project manager in an IT organization. Do you have any advice or wise tips on actions I can take to make myself more valuable to my team? – Love My Job

Dear Love My Job: If budgets are being cut now it might be too late. But let’s plan for the best-case scenario and talk about what you can do to quickly show yourself as a really valuable member of the team.

  • First, make sure you are solid at the basics. Follow through on actions. Deliver on your promises. Be the safe pair of hands. If you have outstanding tasks, or people are waiting on you for things, smash through your list.
  • Second, cultivate a positive attitude. No whining, gossiping or moaning. Be a ray of sunshine for your office without being fake about it. People like to work with positive people.
  • Next, be assertive with your helpfulness. Be helpful and serve your colleagues, but without being a pushover. It’s great to show willingness; just don’t end up being the office doormat. Don’t worry that saying no sometimes will disadvantage you when it comes to the selection process. As long as you do it politely and with reason, it’s a show of assertiveness.
  • Finally, if you don’t do it already, think big picture. As a senior-level project manager, you should be always acutely aware of the business context of your projects and actions. Working in IT can get a bit siloed at times, so think about how your objectives fit in to those of the business overall. And then, make sure people know you are thinking. Find ways to demonstrate that you know how your piece of the business links to others and how your work adds value to the company.

Be awesome! And cross your fingers.

Wait, there’s more! If you want some insightful and practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges

Advice for Project Managers: The Productivity Roller Coaster and Starting Projects too Soon

Project Management Advice Column
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.


Dear Elizabeth:
I run a product team that responds to seasonal demands, and our output fluctuates. We have times when we’re very busy and then a couple of weeks where it’s slow. There’s always work to be done, but when demand ebbs, people’s productivity and engagement does as well. How do I keep my team engaged and motivated during these slow periods? – Riding the Productivity Rollercoaster

Dear Riding: Let me be a little bit controversial here. How much does it matter if your team has a slow period? If demand is down, and that’s affecting their engagement and motivation, unless they are being downright unprofessional, perhaps you could cut them some slack. It’s hard to remain 100 percent motivated every day of every year, and engagement wanes too.

Not having an interesting piece of work to do is naturally a bit demotivating but that doesn’t stop them switching to “motivated mode” as soon as the next big assignment comes in. As long as they aren’t using your resources to print out copies of their resume then maybe you want to let them off. Think of it as time that they are using to recharge their batteries until the next busy period.

Having said that, I know why you want to keep the team engaged and motivated, so let’s get back to your question. The first thing to look for is whether there is a pattern. Can you predict when the slower times will be? If so, think ahead and start looking for activities to fill the gaps. These activities might not be what you might call true work but you could organize a staff conference, a team building event, or schedule some professional training for the team. It’s also a time for cross-skilling, where team members can teach each other their particular expertise so you have more cover for vacation and sickness, as well as a broader skill base in the team.

It’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for how to motivate people because everyone is motivated by different things. Some may appreciate the ability to take some extra time off in lieu of hours worked during the busy times. Others may find motivation in being asked to step up and take on more responsibility, such as helping to plan the next big push. Tasks that might take longer if someone less experienced did them would be good to schedule in the slow periods too, as a way of building confidence and leadership in the team.

Dear Elizabeth: I work on a product team with a very efficient manager—too efficient!  In her efforts to make deadlines, she often has us start early on work—before we have all the requirements. It feels productive at first, but then as requirements change, we end up going back and redoing or fixing work and start to fall behind. And we look bad. I’ve tried talking to my manager but she still has us do these early project starts. She doesn’t understand that waiting for full requirements actually saves time. Advice? – Frustrated

Dear Frustrated: That’s a hard one. The issue isn’t the early starts but the fact that she doesn’t listen to you. It’s great that she’s efficient but her method doesn’t work and you’ve offered constructive advice which she has ignored. So let’s think about some ways to get her to take your advice seriously.

First, would it be more effective coming from someone else? Please don’t take this personally but it’s often the case that individuals are influenced more by their peers or managers than their subordinates. While it’s grating to think that if she heard the same thing from a peer she’d act on it, when you’ve been telling her and getting ignored, the end result is the same and it’s a win for you. So if you can take your own ego out of the situation and work on ways to influence her through the people she listens to, that could work.

It might be hard to approach her boss, but if you have relationships with other managers who could take your side, then that’s a route to try.

Another option would be to ask your customers to provide feedback. Maybe she’d listen if she heard it directly from them? You don’t have to be blunt about it: do a client survey and ask what went well and what didn’t, and try to get some commentary around how they felt about the delays and what they felt could have been done differently to avoid those.

Finally, (and this can be a risky approach!), just say no. “Thanks for the suggestion that we start work now but I’m going to wait until we’ve got the full requirements. That will be at the end of the month so what I can work on before then is X, Y and Z to be totally ready.”

This approach is one that I wouldn’t advise in all cases. Also, I don’t know enough about your workplace culture and your boss to know if it is going to be suitable for you – but you’ll know if you or a more senior colleague have enough confidence and credibility to pull it off. Directly challenging your boss in a nice way might get the result you’re after.

As a general comment on saying No to your manager, I speak to a lot of people who would never dare challenge their boss. But they are just human, like you and me. Be empowered and take responsibility for your own success, and be excellent in the work that you do. If your manager challenges you back, go with it and put your objections in writing (nicely) so you’ve got some kind of comeback if they then blame you for the late finish later.

Good luck!

Wait, there’s more! If you want some insightful and practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges

Advice for Project Managers: How to Get More Resources and Manage Chaos

Advice for project managers
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: I’m currently running a large project that’s a mess. We’ve lost team members, the customer has asked for more features and now we’re scheduled to go well over our deadline. I’ve had endless conversations with my manager about the need to add more people to the project—I’ve even shown her my resource workload report. For some reason she won’t budge. How do I convince her that adding headcount is in the best interest of finishing this project—and our business? –Frantic

Dear Frantic: Oh, I’ve been there. I feel your pain! A good way to do it is to stop talking about people and start talking about money. It feels like a no brainer to add a $30k project coordinator resource to a project that will deliver $1m of benefit every year because if you can deliver faster, you get the benefits faster.

Large projects tend to have significant benefits, either tangible or intangible, so you might have a better argument around increasing resources than people working on smaller projects. If your project has no financial benefit, it still might have a significant risk. For example, how would it sound if you could add a $30k developer to the team that would help prevent you from incurring a multi-million dollar regulatory fine? Even projects that are being done for legislative or compliance purposes have a financial spin that you can put on them.

Failing that, you might have to put the project on a Red status. Red typically draws management attention, and you’re doing the responsible thing of flagging the point that you do not have the ability to deliver on time. You could enlist your customer in putting pressure on your manager if that’s appropriate.

By the way, just because a customer asks for more features, you don’t have to deliver them in the same timeframe. Customers – internal and external – will often try to get more work done in the same time, thinking that your resource is elastic. They’ll know that isn’t truly the case and could be sympathetic to you needing more time if you can’t get the extra hands to help.

Dear Elizabeth: I work on a team that’s always in a state of chaos. We’ve tried different organizational processes, task management software and tools. How do you know if you have the right project management processes and workflows in place? –Perpetually Disorganized

Dear Disorganized: Being in a state of chaos is a sign that you don’t have the right project and work management processes in place.

I know a couple of teams who work excellently together, and yet from the outside it looks like chaos to me, so the first thing is to establish what you think “not chaos” looks like:

  • Is it one where everyone knows what to do, and has their priorities straight?
  • Or do you want to be able to find documents within three seconds of someone asking for them?
  • Is the right workflow one where you can forecast your work for the coming month so that everyone knows what’s planned?

It’s probably a mix of all those things, but only you are going to know what will feel like nirvana for your team. Here’s where to start repairing your process:

Focus on one of your problems to fix, either by giving one of your processes another try (perhaps with a few tweaks) or trying something new. Once that area of chaos is under control, move on and try to bring some order to another area. Trying to change too much at once is a recipe for a different kind of disaster and it will unsettle the team to the point that it undermines what you are hoping to achieve.

Finally, you’ll have to accept that what is billed as “the perfect process” might not work for you. If you can’t make a best practice work, then change it. Tailor your software and processes so that they help you, and don’t hinder you. That’s a process of continuous improvement and if you work closely with your team to identify what is working and what needs to change then you can deliver incremental improvements and slowly bring that chaos under control.

Do you have a project-related question for Elizabeth? Email marketingteam@liquidplanner.com

Wait, there’s more! If you want some insightful and practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management

Advice for Project Managers: Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Setting Goals

Advice for project managers
 

Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: My company’s management team is talking a lot about the incoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. I’m hearing a lot about how we’re going to have to increase productivity and flexibility in our processes. As a product team manager this sounds exciting but I’m not sure what to do to prepare. Advice? –Lagging Behind

Dear Lagging: Industry 4.0 is all about the Internet of Things and bringing computers and automation together in an entirely new way. It’s pretty cool, and it’s great that you are thinking about it now.

Being more flexible and increasing productivity is something that managers through the ages have aspired to. The reason we have robots on manufacturing lines is because someone wanted better productivity than what could be achieved with human workers. So in many respects, the ideas are things that you’ve been subconsciously aware of for some time.

I would start by looking at the flows of work in your area and around your product. Approaches like Six Sigma and Lean can help here: Ultimately you are trying to find duplicated effort and waste in the process so that you can strip it out. I’ve always thought that was a good starting point but it doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes you’ll need to totally re-engineer a process to make it incrementally more productive and your team might already have some ideas about how to do that. Why not ask them?

Aside from that, think about the tools you use and how they are going to support you. Software like LiquidPlanner allows you to stay flexible and shift between priorities, so make sure that you have the underpinning infrastructure and systems to meet the demand for flexibility when it comes.

Dear Elizabeth: It’s that time of year again—reviewing the year gone by and preparing for 2017 goals and commitments. I could use some new ideas to get myself and my team excited about reviewing what they’ve accomplished and using that to set up some goals they’re excited about. Any tips? – Goal Tender

Dear Goal Tender: First, congratulations on caring enough about your team that you want them to be excited about the coming year and what they’ve achieved. Far too many people in your situation see end-of-year reviews as a bureaucratic process to get through before they leave for the holidays. So, kudos to you!

I find that team members have short memories and will often only bring to the table things that they have achieved in the last few months. You could give them a template that says things like:

  • In March I achieved . . .
  • In April I delighted this customer . . .

And so on. Ask them to go through their project plans, notebooks and emails to find the examples if they don’t immediately spring to mind. There are a ton of achievements stored in their project management software so they will be able to find something, I promise.

As for 2017, you could think forward and ask them to imagine what their 2017 end of year review would look like. What do they hope they have achieved? What projects would they like to have worked on, or what skills would they have developed? This can help build a sense of interest in the coming year.

Finally, use the end of year conversations with your team to share with them as much as you can about the wider business plans. People are inspired when they know they are part of a company that is going somewhere. Talk about the plans you have for new clients and new projects and business developments. Show them what they could be part of over the next 12 months.

Have a question for Elizabeth? Email:  MarketingTeam@liquidplanner.com with the subject “Advice Column.”

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

Download the eBook now!
Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Advice for Project Managers: How to Better Prioritize Work and Projects

Advice for project managers
 

This advice column addresses common project management and workplace challenges. If you have question, ask  Elizabeth! Email your question to:  MarketingTeam@liquidplanner.com with the subject “Advice Column.” Anonymity included.

 

 

Dear Elizabeth: I manage a team that that is always juggling multiple project tasks. How can I keep my team focused on their top priorities, and help them know what the latest priorities are? – All Over the Place

Dear Place: Welcome to my world! Juggling is the norm, I’m afraid, but it’s great that you’ve accepted it, and you’re looking for ways to keep the focus.

The first question, and forgive me for asking, is: Do you know what the priorities are?

If you do, it’s a far easier job than trying to work them out, so let’s assume for now that you are clear on what the team needs to do to complete their projects successfully. (If not, find out what they are and then apply the following tips.) Here are three tips to help the team stay focused.

  1. Keep in touch

There’s a balance between micro-managing and staying on top of the work, but try to find it! Keep close to the team so that you can steer them in the right direction. Daily stand ups (even if you aren’t an agile team) are a good way to check in and make sure everyone understands what the priority is for the day.

  1. Explain the priorities

Don’t just tell people what the priorities are. Explain why. This gives people some context so that if they can’t work on the top priority for whatever reason (say, they are waiting on a colleague for information) they can make better decisions about what to do instead.

  1. Stop the distractions

As a project manager or team leader you are the one to shield the team from annoying distractions. Keep them out of office politics, protect them from the day-to-day headaches and give them the space and the tools they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Hope that helps!

Dear Elizabeth: My team members are constantly being pulled away to help other teams with their projects. I can’t say anything because the requests often come from upper level management. How can I protect my team from being randomized? – The Randomizee

Dear Randomizee: This is such a frustrating problem. You thought you could deliver by next month and then suddenly your key resource is gone. Cue a huge reschedule and an unhappy sponsor (not to mention the upheaval in the team).

This comes down to not having clear priorities between projects. If your project is the most important company initiative then your resources are secure, because execs and stakeholders will be aware that it has to happen.

There are two things at play here: having those priorities in place, and people respecting them.

First, get the priorities clear. You need someone to look at the portfolio of work and prioritize the projects—someone from your Project Management Office or a team manager. This person needs to give each project a clear ranking so that everyone understands where each initiative fits in the grand scheme of things.

Second, respect the rankings. That means that if someone tries to pull your resources on to another project, and that project is less important than yours, you have something concrete backing you when you say no – even if the person is more senior to you. If the requester doesn’t listen to you, the overseeing project manager will back you up and you have the escalation route.

This also means that you have to respect the rankings. If someone needs your key people for a project that is more important than yours, then you must acquiesce. After all, you all work for the same company and it’s the company’s success that’s important. When a more strategically-driven initiative needs extra hands, everyone should rally to make that happen.

I know this isn’t an easy answer, but it’s the cleanest way to stop the act of randomizing people and breaking up teams at the whim of executives.

Wait, there’s more! If you want some insightful and practical solutions to common PM problems, download the eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

Solve the Top 9 PM Challenges

5 Common Problems for Small Project Teams

Small team problems

“Small is beautiful.” So championed British economist E. F. Schumacher, and those of us who have worked in small teams are highly likely to agree.

Small teams (10 and under) often work on highly complex problems, in fast-moving environments and with a high degree of trust. A great team can deliver amazing projects and create bonds that go far beyond the office, with team members becoming lifelong friends.

Or, it might not work out like that at all!

Small teams have their challenges too. And while many of the problems are similar to the ones that all teams face—disagreements, clashing personalities, unclear priorities—there are some challenges that are more specific to smaller teams.

Here are five common problems that you might face while working in a small team, and how you can solve each one. (If you act early, you might even avoid some of these!)

  1. You Take Your Teammates for Granted

When you’ve worked in a small team for a while, you tend to take liberties because you know you can get away with it. Someone always gets the coffees. Someone always talks about sports and someone else is the complainer. Like a family, you create your role and patterns.

But, as sometimes happens in families, you can end up taking each other for granted.

Taking your teammates for granted means not showing appreciation when someone helps you out or does standout work on a project.  It’s easy to expect certain behaviors as standard: There’s the person who always meets the deadline, someone else who alerts you of schedule changes the second something comes up, the person who pitches in when extra features get added. Either because this is the status quo or you get really busy, it’s easy to forget to stop and say a simple “thank you” or “nice job.” Everyone wants to feel like they matter—think about how it makes you feel when a team mate acknowledges something you did.

To solve the problem: It’s easy to underestimate the value someone brings to the team, especially if you see them bringing their A game day after day. Schedule some time as a team to meet and go through your successes—those you’ve had individually and together. Also remember to put time in your project plan for a little celebration at the close of a project. It’s a nice (and easy) way to thank each other for the efforts on a project. And don’t forget to say some kind words in passing, it takes mere seconds.

  1. Personalities Clash

In a big team you can generally avoid that annoying person who always wants to tap you for advice when you’re really busy. But in a small team you can’t avoid clashes in personality or working style because that person is always right there.

Differences are more obvious because there are fewer people to dilute the effect of someone noisy or abrupt. Clashing work styles can create an uncomfortable atmosphere at work where someone insists on doing a task a particular way, despite that not being the best way for the team.

To solve the problem: The best way to avoid clashes of working style and personality is to hire carefully. Really carefully. If you can, involve other team members in the hiring process and think about cultural fit as well as their skills. The next best solution is to make sure that you have processes in place for common project management tasks so that there is only one way to do the work. This should smooth some of the clashes by creating common standards.

  1. People Are Harder to Replace

When your team is only a few people, losing someone can be a huge blow. Whether this absence is for a few days or a week (training, holiday, sick), or they leave the company, an absent colleague leaves a big hole in the team.

In small teams, there’s a greater chance that everyone stretches to take on more work, or each individual is an expert in an area. This means when someone’s gone you’ll miss her knowledge, her input to the project and the role she plays both practically and socially in the team.

To solve the problem: Systems, processes and tools make it easier to store organizational knowledge and project information. In other words, document everything. This way, if someone does drop out of the team for any reason, you’ve got the vast majority of what they know codified in your project management tool.

However, it won’t help replace their cheerful smile or their in-depth knowledge of 1980s pop music for the company quiz night.

  1. You Share Too Much of the Work

Wait, isn’t this an advantage? In a project environment, especially if you’re working with Agile or Lean methods, it’s often all about being proactive about taking responsibility and doing what needs to be done to get the job completed.

But when everyone is having a go at everything, there can be problems. For example, two of you might decide to do the same task and not let each other know. Or, two team members contact a customer to ask a question or set up a meeting. While it’s great that your team is proactive and everyone steps up when a task needs doing, sharing the workload without talking about who is doing what can be a massive problem.

It’s also a problem when the reverse happens: Everyone thought that someone else booked the meeting room; or that another teammate contacted the client, when nobody did. In small teams, where you expect the team to self-manage, you risk more tasks falling through the cracks.

To solve the problem: Clear lines of communication help but the problem is really about organizing work responsibility. Project management software can keep everyone on the same page. It makes it easy to shift responsibility about too, so if you’ve got a regular task that needs to be done it can be rotated around the team. Don’t think that just because you’re a small team you don’t need a work management tool!

  1. Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time!

Small teams struggle to get everything done. It’s something I’ve seen over and over again, in my teams and in others. With limited resources it’s hard to fit all the work in. Also, small teams are often made up of highly motivated, dedicated individuals and they all want to offer the best service and products to customers.

That can lead to gold-plating the solution or spending too much time researching new technical options and so on—on top of trying to get the day job done.

To solve the problem: Systemize! Get as much of your job, project, processes and tasks automated and repeatable. Don’t reinvent the wheel on every project: Use templates for schedules and documentation. Standardize your processes as much as possible so you don’t have to think about them. Use top quality project management software to make your processes as seamless as possible.

When people come together to work together, there will always be hiccups. But today, we have so many tools and processes to use and a wealth of knowledge to tap, there’s always a way to navigate these common problems.

Extra! Do you like being part of a team?

We took to the streets and asked people in downtown Seattle about their experience working in teams. Check it out here:

 

If you’re looking for ways to better manage your small team, check out our Small Team edition. It’s new!

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