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Using the 5 Whys Method to Get to the Bottom of Your Problems

When something goes wrong, people always want to know why. Why did this happen? Why did this go wrong? It’s a logical question, but stopping there is likely to lead to a dead end.

To get at the core of why the unexpected event or challenge happened, you need to dig deeper. Instead of stopping at one, you need to ask why five times.

The 5 Whys

The core idea of the 5 Whys system is exactly what it sounds like: ask the question “Why?” five times to understand the root cause of an issue. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System.  “Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he advised his staff. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”

Ohno used a malfunctioning welding robot as an example:

  1. “Why did the robot stop?”
    The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
  2. Why is the circuit overloaded?
    There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
  3. “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?”
    The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
  4. “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?”
    The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
  5. “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?”
    Because there is no filter on the pump.

If the questions had stopped at the first or second why, it would be tempting to think the problem could be solved with a new fuse or pump. But, the problem would have reoccured in a few months. In this case, the issue was caused by human error. Someone had forgotten to attach a filter to the pump.

By asking and answering “Why?” five times, you can drill down to the core issue, which is often hidden behind symptoms. “The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution,” Ohno said.

When to Use the 5 Whys

The 5 Whys system is most effective when used to solve simple to moderately challenging issues. If you’re using 5 Whys for complex issues, you need to be more careful. With complex problems, there are often multiple causes. Using the 5 Whys could lead you down a single path, causing you to ignore the other underlying issues.

Because the 5 Whys is relatively easy, it can be a great tool for kicking off brainstorming around a problem before you take a more in-depth approach.

A Few Limitations to Keep in Mind

The 5 Whys method does have some limitations.

  • The person leading the 5 Whys must have expert knowledge about the problem and possible issues. If the cause is unknown to the person doing the problem-solving, the method may not lead to the true cause. In the earlier example, it’s unlikely that someone with zero mechanical knowledge would have noticed the missing filter on the pump intake.
  • The success of the method relies on the skill of the facilitator. One wrong answer may completely throw off the questioning, leading to a wrong conclusion.
  • An assumption of the 5 Whys method is that there is that presenting symptoms all stem from one cause. For complex problems, this isn’t always the case. A 5 Whys analysis may not reveal all of the causes that are tied to these symptoms.

How the Process Works

Ready to try it? The 5 Whys method follows a very simple five-step process.

1. Assemble your team.

First, invite people who are familiar with the issue and the process you are trying to fix to the 5 Whys meeting.

2. Select a facilitator for your meeting.

The facilitator will lead the discussion, ask the 5 Whys, and keep the team focused on the issue at-hand.

3. Define the problem.

Discuss the problem with your team, and then focus on creating a clear and concise problem statement. To get started, answer the questions, What is going on, when did it happen, where did it happen, and who found the problem.

Write your problem statement on a whiteboard, leaving enough room to answer the 5 Whys below.

4. Ask why five times.

The first why should cover why the problem is happening. The method will work best if your answer is grounded in fact. No guessing allowed. Avoid going down the path of deductive reasoning, which can muddy the process. Answer each question quickly to avoid going down rabbit holes and jumping to conclusions.

Continue asking why until you feel that you’ve examined each path and can go no further. If your first why generated more than one reason, you can now go back and repeat the process until you’ve explored those routes, as well.

Note: As you go through this process, you may find that someone dropped the ball along the way. Instead of placing blame, the goal is to ask, Why did the process fail? This line of questioning will show what organizational processes need to be fixed.

5. Address the root causes.

By now, you should have identified one true root cause. With the group, discuss what countermeasures can be taken to prevent the issue from happening again. The facilitator may assign responsibilities for these countermeasures to the group.

6. Monitor your countermeasures.

The process doesn’t end there.

It’s important to monitor how effectively your measures solved or minimized the problem. If nothing has changed, you may have identified the wrong root cause and need to repeat the process.

That’s it! While the 5 Whys method was originally developed for use in a manufacturing setting, it can be beneficial in a wide range of applications. Do you use the 5 Whys in your work or personal life? If so, how was the method worked for you?

What is Little Data? And Why Do Project Managers Need It?

One of the fastest-growing technology trends today is Big Data, probably behind Internet of Things and ahead of Virtual Reality. For instance, a search on the job site Indeed for “Big Data” returned almost 20,000 entries.

But what about Little Data (which only gets four hits on Indeed)?

Big data is mining huge, heterogeneous data sets and pulling out subtle information that can inform all sorts of decisions.

Let’s look at climate change science as an example. Data comes from atmospheric measurements over Hawaii, temperature data across the globe, ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland, underwater measurements from all the world’s seas, and more. Some of the data were taken by satellite last week; others written in notebooks centuries ago.

[Further Reading: How to Be a Project Team of the Future: Preparing for Industry 4.0]

It’s been pored over by scientists from every country in the world. The data and analysis needed to predict how the climate is changing and will change is complicated. To really understand it requires a PhD. The details are so complex that we have been unable to decisively act on this critical issue.

What Is Little Data?

Little data is the opposite. It’s the 2+2=4 kind of things.

Little data is the obvious observations and conclusions that those paying attention will catch and can use to their advantage. It’s looking outside, seeing it’s raining, and deciding to put on a jacket. It’s noticing that the prices and quality of the food is better at one store than another and using that information to decide where to shop. It’s noticing that if you drink coffee after 5 p.m., you have trouble going to sleep, so you stop drinking coffee after 5 p.m.

Little data has three steps:

  1. Gather data.
  2. Do some straightforward analysis of the data.
  3. Act based on your analysis.

To some extent, little data and big data are close to the same thing, it’s just a matter of degree. The biggest difference is that the analysis for little data is straightforward. If you’re looking for someone with a PhD in math to help with your analysis, that’s not little data. For little data, you should be able to do the analysis in Excel. The challenge is knowing how to respond to your results.

Improve Schedules with Little Data

Here’s a straightforward way to use little data to improve your schedules: record task estimates and actuals. The data should include who did the estimation and the work. Using a pivot table in Excel, you can see which estimators typically underestimate or overestimate. You can also see which of your team members take more or less time than was predicated. There are many ways this data can improve your organization, including:

  • Decrease the bias of future estimations
  • Identify team members who are not using best practices (and therefore take longer)
  • Identify team members who have practices you should transfer to other team members

As is often the case, data acquisition is straightforward, analysis simple, and the response requires further digging.

Measuring KPIs

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are a common little data management technique. Leadership decides that certain easily measurable metrics are key to the organization’s success, targets are set, and data acquired. If the performance does not reach the target, then some form of response is taken.

For example, you may be managing a manufacturing line. Your KPI is the number of units manufactured per hour. In creating the manufacturing process, you know you can build 100 units an hour, so you set your target at 80 units an hour to account for the normal hiccups (e.g. you’re training a new team member).

[Further Reading: AI, IoT, and the Future of Manufacturing]

Data collection and analysis are easy. If you’re meeting your target, you can move on to other issues or raise the target. Ideally, if you don’t meet your target, the response is agreed to prior to acquiring the data. Often it just indicates you need to dig deeper, as in this case. As is all small data analysis, the challenge is in the response, not acquiring or analyzing the data.

A Real-Life Example: Test Scores

One of the most controversial examples of little data are standardized school tests. The data is homogenous and straightforward (if time consuming) to collect. The naïve analysis is trivial (average score by grade and school). The response is complex and fraught with challenges.

In 2010, an elementary school near my house was labeled as failing according to the No Child Left Behind law. A majority of the students were from refugee and immigrant families. Many didn’t speak English at home, which certainly posed a challenge for the school.

The metric, test scores, didn’t determine what action was called for, but made clear there was a problem. The district responded by bringing in a new principal and new teachers, and a concerted effort was undertaken to improve performance.  After four years, the performance of the school went from one of the worst schools in the state to only a bit worse than the average school. The little data approach showed that by the metrics we use, the interventions improved the performance.

But this same metric can be misused. There are two middle schools near our house, and we choose to send our son to the one with lower test scores. The school our son goes to is incredibly diverse (including most of the kids who went to the formerly failing elementary school), with a great vibe and dedicated teachers. Test scores can tell you when a school is broken, but it’s not useful in comparing two functional schools. How a school fosters creativity, teamwork, and curiosity are not captured in any test.

This same data can also be used in a big data analysis. Throw in demographic data from the census, housing prices from the country, income data from the IRS, alcohol and cannabis consumption data from Washington State and some subtle correlations that aren’t immediately apparent might appear.

Of course, they might just be random chance; that’s why you need to be careful with big data in a way that you don’t with little data. If your school has the lowest test scores in the state, you know you have a problem. If there’s a weak positive correlation between playing sports and grades, that doesn’t mean every child needs to immediately join a league.

It can be hard to rally the troops to fix a broken team or process. When you come in with data showing how far you are from where you’re supposed to be, it’s much easier to drive changes.  That’s true whether it’s replacing a principal or fixing a broken manufacturing process.

Use Data Thoughtfully

Throughout your day, you’re inundated with data. The key to both little data and big data is to thoughtfully filter out what is unimportant and turn what is important into knowledge, which is data with context and meaning. Then you use that knowledge to inform your actions. If the data can’t lead to action, it’s worthless. An extreme example of this is Sherlock Holmes’s lack of interest in the fact that the Earth orbits the sun,

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Though, as a former astronomer, I don’t encourage following Holmes’s example, it is important to focus our efforts on data, big or small, that help us make better decisions.

October Product Update: Focus on What’s Important with New Alerts

When you see a column of bright red flames running alongside your project plans, it can be a bit unsettling. That’s why we’ve added more intuitive alerts to help you understand the severity of a risk.

To learn more about these new alerts and what they mean for project plans, we talked to Nick Smith, Lead Product Manager at LiquidPlanner.

With the October update, LiquidPlanner customers will see new colors and new alerts in their workspaces. What has changed?

We’ve come out with new alerts that are more human-friendly and easier to understand.

There are two major categories: deadline or effort risks alerts and non-critical, informational alerts.

Deadline or effort risks get flame icons. Before, we had different icons that used orange and red. Now, we have an entire category for deadline or effort risks. If you’ve taken the time to tell LiquidPlanner that there’s a deadline you want to hit or a max amount of effort you’d like to stay under, we want to uphold our end of the bargain and show when that will occur, as well as the severity level.

The alerts in this category are yellow for slight risk, orange for moderate, and red for severe. It’s kind of like Google Maps: the higher the risk, the more alarming the alert level.

The second category is non-critical, informational alerts. There are three new alerts within this category:

Green Manual Alerts: These alerts are manually created by typing an alert message into the Manual Alert field in the Edit Panel.

Blue Schedule Input Error Alert: Blue alerts are input or output errors in the schedule. For example, someone is assigned to a project that they do not have access to. Or, someone is assigned to complete work, and they are no longer in the workspace. We use blue alerts to inform customers of an issue that requires action, so that LiquidPlanner can give an accurate schedule.

Purple Informational Alerts: Purple alerts notify you of a non-critical issue and offer next steps to resolve it.

See the Alerts article in the LiquidPlanner Knowledge Base for more details.

Why the change?

These new alerts work as a focusing mechanism for our customers. In our research, we found that customers were describing their workspaces as a “sea of red.” They didn’t know where to focus their attention.

We’re trying to elevate the importance of schedule- or effort-based risk, which is something that we can generate with our scheduling engine. When those risks materialize, we want to make sure we’re doing our part to help users understand where the risks are and what they mean.

Also, if there are issues in the workspace that aren’t contributing to schedule or effort risk, we want to help customers understand how to resolve those issues. Before, the red alerts were like the boy who cried wolf. People just stopped paying attention. This new category of informational alerts will draw attention to these issues without overwhelming customers.

Do customers need to change their responses to red alerts?

This update doesn’t change how customers should respond. The only change is that they now know that any flame icon is always related to deadlines or max effort.

When something is red, it means it should be looked into. A deadline is about to be missed or the maximum hours of effort has been met. The way to react to that is the same as in the past. But, it’s now easier to find those issues.

How do you use alerts in your work as a Product Manager?

I use alerts to look for issues. The color of the alert helps me decide how much attention I should give it. Alerts also help me figure out where I should be spending my attention as a manager and resolving roadblocks on projects or bottlenecks between resources on projects.

To learn more about the new alerts and what they mean for your project plans, check out the Alerts article in the LiquidPlanner Knowledge Base.

New Features Webinar

Sign up for our 2017 New Features Webinar on October 11 to learn all about this and other product enhancements from earlier this year. Register now.

Yes, Your Team Needs a Project Manager. Here’s Why

During the annual budget cycle, portfolio planning or even the adhoc “just-go-do-it” project, project management resource planning and funding can be marginalized and even entirely overlooked.

I’ve seen budgets and resource staffing assumptions that state the project only needs 10 percent of a project management effort. Or, even worse, the team doesn’t assign an internal project manager because the vendor is responsible to “deliver the work.”

Executive teams can make the mistake of overlooking project management needs to make the costs fit the budget or poor assumptions about the project’s complexity. Underestimating the amount of project management required to deliver a project is a critical mistake.

Below are five reasons why projects need professional and experienced project managers.

1. Ensure the project is organized to achieve the project goals.

When I’m asked to consult on a project turnaround effort or help get a troubled project back on track, one common finding is the lack of organization.

Teams will indicate they communicate frequently, know the status of milestones and have a good handle of the key project issues. But, I often find these troubled projects lack an integrated project schedule, a published and understood communication plan, as well as simple project artifacts like an issue list, weekly status report, or an updated project schedule.

An experienced project manager will help avoid these problems by ensuring the project is organized for success. A little bit of pre-planning, clarification of roles and expectations, and structure goes a long way to set up a team for success. Without the organization, teams can churn needlessly thinking that they are making progress.

2. Establish a single point of communication and accountability.

Assigning a project manager to a project establishes a single point of communication and overall accountability.

Project management is not a support role. In fact, it is a leadership role that helps deliver the project. In most organizations, a business lead and a project manager lead the communication effort and share accountability in the project delivery.

When stakeholders have questions, the business typically leads the communication. But project-level details are the project manager’s responsibility.

It is also important the business lead and the project manager are aligned on the communication. I’ve worked on several projects where the business lead’s project status viewpoint differed greatly from the project management level detail. Often, it is the small things that matter!

3. Apply experience and lessons learned.

Professional project managers bring a wide variety of experience and knowledge based on thousands of hours of successful and challenged projects. If the team is implementing a project in a new domain or new business process, adding a project manager with past experience will be instrumental to the project’s success. Otherwise, you’ll bear the cost of experiencing those lessons learned the first time around!

4. Project management is your assurance policy.

You’ve just funded a one million dollar project that will take 12 to 14 months to complete. The results will improve sales and overall company growth.

Are you comfortable just letting anyone run the project? Wouldn’t it be better to provide professional, skilled overhead to ensure the project goals are achieved and if problems arise, the resource has the skills and expertise to help?

Adding a professional project manager (usually less than 10 percent of project costs) provides assurance the project will be organized and managed appropriately. I’d like to say it actually provides insurance, but even project management is a sunk cost on successful and troubled projects.

5. Cheaper to invest in the fundamentals now than later.

The reality is projects are hard. Projects introduce new processes, systems, and organizational change that the organization hasn’t experienced. Executives may be hesitant to fund project managers for every project as there is usually a team lead who has demonstrated leadership in the past.

Leadership isn’t reserved for just for project managers, as we expect each team member to apply situational leadership when called upon. However, it is cheaper to invest in the project management function now rather than later in the project.

When executive stakeholders finally recognize the project needs professional help, it is often too late to rescue the project and maintain the original timing. Providing a project manager upfront mitigates the risk of cost and schedule overruns. Assigning a project manager doesn’t mean guaranteed success. However, you will be guaranteed communication of project issues, delays, and solutions based on years of experience.

When projects go off track, the way to fix most projects is to return to the fundamentals of managing scope, time, resources, and quality. It is better to invest in the fundamentals upfront rather than paying expensive consultants to turn around a project and install those fundamentals mid-project.

How Big Data Can Give Project Managers The Edge In Manufacturing

There is no escaping the big data revolution that is sweeping across all sectors of industry. Companies that embrace this revolution are on the road to achieving greater business efficiencies and higher profitability.

Any organization with the ability to assimilate data to provide crucial insights into their operations can benefit. Sectors like financial services and healthcare have already embraced big data analytics to remarkable effect.

Now, manufacturing is getting up-to-speed as companies recognize the value in the vast amounts of data that they create and hold. Manufacturers across a range of industries now have the capability to take previously isolated data sets, aggregate and analyze them to reveal important insights.

[Further Reading: AI, IoT, and the Future of Manufacturing]

However, what many of them lack is a clear understanding of how to use the new technology, or even which big data analytics tools they need to apply to their huge volumes of real-time shop-floor data.

For project managers with big data skills and knowledge, this offers an opportunity to gain a competitive edge in the manufacturing sector.

Demand for Big Data Analytics in Manufacturing

Over the past couple of decades, manufacturers have made progress in tackling some of their sector’s biggest challenges, including waste and variability in production processes. By implementing Lean processes and programs, many have achieved significant improvements in product quality and output.

Nevertheless, in some processing environments, pharmaceuticals and biochemistry for example, Lean methods have not been as effective in curbing processing variability swings, largely because the production activities that influence output in these industries tend to be complex and numerous.

In biopharmaceutical production, it is not unusual for companies to be monitoring more than 150 variables to ensure the purity and compliance of their product. This has created a need for a more granular approach to identifying and resolving errors in these and other industry production processes. And, that’s where data analytics can make a difference.

How Project Managers Can Play A Role

Planning and Delivery

In manufacturing, planning and delivery is often a heavily documented area. It is also an area where big data is shaping project management. The application of data analytics can produce insights that can help to redefine manufacturing planning processes and parameters.

Quality Assurance

A second area where project managers have already deployed big data technology is in the analysis of quality management data.

Because producing consistently high-quality products is key to remaining competitive, many manufacturers are now looking to big data as a way of improving their quality assurance.

One example of where this has been done successfully is computer chip manufacturer Intel, which uses predictive analytics to deliver quality assurance on its products. Prior to the development of big data technology, the firm would subject every chip to a battery of tests to ensure that it reached the quality standard.

Using big data for predictive analytics, historical data collected during the manufacturing process was analyzed, enabling the company to reduce test time. Instead of running every single chip through thousands of tests, Intel was able to focus tests on specific chips, bolstering its operational efficiencies and its bottom line.

In this fairly typical manufacturing scenario, a project manager can play a strategic role in bringing quality management and compliance systems out of their traditional silos and helping organisations find better ways of operating.

Productivity and Efficiency

Speeding up the production process is key to driving profitability in manufacturing. But doing ramping production without sacrificing quality can be a challenge, particularly in manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceuticals, where multiple factors play a role in the manufacturing process.

Improving accuracy during the production process while increasing output is another task for the project manager with access to big data analytics systems and skills, which can be used to effectively segment their production and identify the fastest stages of the process.

With this insight, manufacturers can focus their efforts on those areas for maximum production and efficiency. In the case of the more complex pharma manufacturing process, big data can analyse these factors effectively and with ease. Segmentation of the process highlights areas with the highest error rates, which when addressed, allow the company to increase production and boost profitability.

Risk Management

Risk to any stage of the manufacturing process is a threat to output. For example, many manufacturers are reliant on the delivery of raw materials, and need to reduce risk in this area. Predictive analytics can be used to calculate the probabilities of delays, for example, due to disruption by severe weather conditions.

Analytics findings on weather patterns can help companies develop contingency plans and identify back up suppliers, etc. to minimize the risk of production being interrupted. Identifying risks and managing them on an ongoing basis is a core part of the project management team’s role, and data analytics will increasingly become a valuable tool for them in maintaining effective risk management within the manufacturing process.

In business terms, the era of big data analytics may just be dawning. However, the technology is already proving to be a critical tool for bringing about improvements across many business processes, particularly in manufacturing, where process complexity, process variability, and capacity restraints present challenges. Those companies that strengthen their capabilities for detailed analysis and assessment of their operations will make themselves more competitive and ultimately more profitable.

How Project Managers Can Become Big Data Savvy

In this age of digital transformation, project managers are increasingly aware of where the intersections lie between emerging technologies, sectors like manufacturing, and their own role.

They understand the impact that big data analytics can have for manufacturers. They have a key role to play in helping manufacturers select the right technology systems that will enable them to maximize their use of this data.

Project managers may need to acquire new skills and learn how to adapt to the needs of big data projects, and there are many training programs available that can help with that.

[Further reading: 8 Ways to Become a Big Data Project Manager]

Leading a big data-driven project team can be quite different to leading more traditional software development teams, so here the project manager can draw on cross-disciplinary skills from other areas within the business, for example, from operations and business analysis.

By leveraging emerging technologies such as big data analytics the project management professional remains relevant and able to deliver real business value in sectors like manufacturing, where demand for these skills are in the greatest demand.

Ask a Project Manager: How Can I Be More Productive?

“Dear Elizabeth: It feels like I’m spending so much time just staying on top of things. I have systems, but I don’t think they are the best. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel like I’m never getting anything done. Does that make sense? How can I be more productive when working on a project or task?”

It makes perfect sense to me! I’ve certainly had times when I’ve worked really hard and had nothing to show for it at the end of the day. They weren’t productive days, and they made me feel like I wasn’t achieving anything.

I don’t know about you, but as a project manager, I don’t like to feel as if I’m not achieving anything. I get a buzz out of keeping my projects moving forward in the right direction, so unproductive days zap my motivation.

The thing is, productivity looks different for different situations. You’ve asked about being productive on a project and also on a task, and they are different beasts. Let’s break it down.

Task Productivity

It’s hard to be productive if you don’t have a clear understanding of what is required. I was doing some work recently where the briefing from the client was vague, I didn’t have access to the right files, the files I did have were the wrong versions (and they told me that).

I wasn’t productive when that job started, I can tell you. It took a while to get clarity on what was required, how they wanted me to do it, what resources I needed access to, and who was going to give them to me.

And all the while I felt bad because I wasn’t producing anything for them.

Get complete clarity on what the task is. Even if that means asking the stupid questions, or asking the questions again and again until you get the answers you need to start work.

Then, make sure you set aside enough time to actually do the work. Much ‘unproductivity’ comes about because we are too squashed for time.

When you don’t have enough time to do the task, you start to worry about the output – will it be good enough? Can I get it done? And you don’t focus on the work that you can do.

Then, do the work. This is the most important part! If it’s a long job, document where you are, track your progress, and provide updates to your manager (or do them for your own benefit) as you go along.

I wish there was some kind of magic formula for being more productive, but at the end of the day it’s all about focus. Know what you have to do, don’t lose focus, and just get on with it.

Focus, focus, focus.

Project Productivity

Productivity sustained across a whole project is a different matter. You’ve got to facilitate the work of others. Your project needs a clear definition, just like you would need for a task. You need to think about the overall structure of the work, breaking it down into component tasks.

Then you need to structure the tasks in a way that makes sense for the flow of work, ensuring that there are realistic estimates for the work required. Those tasks need to be allocated to the people who can do them best, and who agrees that it is their job to do them.

There’s nothing more unproductive than someone who feels that a task isn’t their responsibility.

Your aim is to set up your task owners for success by helping them be productive. You’re creating a foundation for them to be able to do their work with the right resources and the right inputs (hence why it’s important to have the tasks scheduled at the right time in the flow so that pre-requisite tasks are complete).

It’s a lot easier to be productive over a project or task if you enjoy the work. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you’ll find reasons not to do it, and it’s not difficult to find things that you would prefer to be spending time on!

I know it’s not realistic to love everything you have to do in the office, but the more fun you can build into your day the better it will be for you and your team members. It’s easier to get stuff done when you are hanging out with people who think about work in the same way as you do and are nice to be around.

I’m guessing your next question is: What can I use to help me do all this?

To start with, you can use your common sense to block out your time to do your work in a productive fashion. So no social media. Put your phone on silent if you need to and turn off email pop up notifications. Get into the ‘work zone’ and set yourself up for productive success.

Second, make the most of the project management tools given to you for your own personal productivity too. Track your time so that you know what you are currently spending your day on. This is incredibly important. In my experience, the most productive people know what their priorities are and work on them, without distractions. And they know how they are spending their time.

The tasks you are working on might not fit neatly within your project schedule, but you can still use enterprise project management tools to manage your personal tasks. OK, not collecting the dry cleaning. But tasks related to your work that don’t fit within a project structure, like preparing a quarterly update on the project management team’s training needs for your boss or remembering to track your monthly hours for the PMO.

With tools like LiquidPlanner, the functionality is just there: you can create new tasks, track time, and more. If you’re in a project management role, you likely have some tools that you use daily and are comfortable using. Start treating your personal To Do list like a project and track and manage it in the same way. That’s a sure way to give you clarity, keep you focused and boost productivity.

Getting Your Team to Use LiquidPlanner: Sell Benefits, Not Features

Congratulations–you’re the proud owner of a new project management tool. You made it through the evaluation process, the trials, the executive sign-off.

But your greatest challenge still lies ahead: convincing your team to actually use (and perhaps even enjoy) this new tool.

This challenge is not to be taken lightly. Do it poorly, and you risk failure. You don’t want that. Your boss doesn’t want that. The business definitely doesn’t want that.

So you have to do it right–the first time. Just one slight problem…

Change is hard.

“We’re too busy to learn a new tool.”

“Our current process is working fine. Why change?”

“I don’t use our current tool. A new one won’t help me.”

Convincing your team to adopt (and love) LiquidPlanner will take some work. But it’s definitely possible, and we’re going to help you do it.

Sell Benefits, Not Features

“Features tell, but benefits sell.”

This common refrain, uttered in marketing departments the world over, serves as a reminder to ask, “What’s in it for our customer?” In this case, your customer is, you guessed it, your team.

If you start by rattling off a whole lot of features, you’ll quickly lose their attention. Persuading your team requires a mix of features and benefits. To get to those benefits, you want to use the “So what?” trick.

Here’s how it works: Pretend you’re selling an in-window air conditioner to your team. (Just stick with me here.)

The particular air conditioner comes with a mounting kit.

So what?

It can be safely and easily secured in most windows.

So what?

You can use the unit in any room in your home.

So what?

The in-window air conditioner can be safely and securely installed in any room of your home. You can enjoy the cooling satisfaction of air conditioning without the high costs of installing and maintaining a forced air system. It’s an effective, efficient, and inexpensive solution for hot days.

By using the So what? method, you’ve shown how this solution can meet their needs. This method works for any product, including project management software. Use it to start brainstorming about ways to position LiquidPlanner as a solution to your team’s needs.

To get you started, we’ve compiled talking points around three team-focused benefits: consolidation, collaboration, and autonomy.

Benefit #1: Consolidation

On the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, the New York Times published a video about “all the things this ubiquitous gadget has laid to waste.” The list runs the gamut, from taxis to cameras to small talk in elevators.

What would have once filled a box (address books, photo albums, day planner, alarm clock, watch…you get the point) now fits in the palm of our hand. It’s an amazing feat for something that originated as a way to make telephone calls.

Were you anticipating this metaphor? Here it is: LiquidPlanner is like the iPhone.

Yes, I know. Project management software will never be as far-reaching or monumental as the iPhone. But, for the people who use the tools on a daily basis, it can sometimes feel like it, for better or for worse.

Like the iPhone, LiquidPlanner combines several tools into one:

  • Email (You can’t rid yourself of it completely, but the number of emails sent and received can be reduced.)
  • Slack, Yammer, and other IM communication platforms
  • Time tracking software
  • Spreadsheets
  • To-do lists
  • Calendars

If your team spends a lot of time jumping between different applications, this could be a major selling point. Consolidation also reduces time spent copying and pasting the same information across different applications. All conversations, documents, and plans are in one place.

Here’s a video you can share with your team to give them a quick overview and get them excited about LiquidPlanner:

Pitch It to Your Team

With LiquidPlanner, we can consolidate our project toolkit, workflow, and project plans into one. We’ll no longer need to juggle multiple applications, saving us time and headaches. Plus, we’ll all have real-time visibility into our projects with just one click.

Benefit #2: Faster Communication

Communication is almost always listed in those “5 Top Skills for PMs” listicles. If that’s the case, then why do so many project management tools make it so hard to communicate with the team?

LiquidPlanner knows that teams are often swimming in emails, attachments, and random Slack messages. That’s removing these roadblocks and making communication much easier is a major component of our tool.

Why teams love collaborating in LiquidPlanner:

  • Built-in collaboration features: Commenting within LiquidPlanner moves conversations out of email and IM, creating a “paper trail” that’s linked to the specific project task. @mention comments can be used to call team members’ attention and keep conversations focused.
  • Open, transparent environment: With a shared workspace, everyone can see all the tasks that make up the project and the schedule for project completion. This transparency makes it clear what needs to be done, who’s responsible for doing what, and when tasks needs to be completed.
  • Single, centralized workspace: A project workspace hosted online gives the whole team access to the information they need and a means to collaborate, via any Internet-enabled device. For geographically distributed teams, nobody loses out due to location or time difference. Information is available to the whole team 24/7, and team members don’t have to ask the project manager or wait to be spoon fed information.
  • Documents housed in one location: Team members shouldn’t have to visit several different repositories for documentation or other information they need to get the job done. This eats time and introduces version control issues (e.g., many different versions of the same document being emailed around). Documentation can be stored in the workspace itself, ideally with any associated tasks linked to it, which makes navigation a breeze.

Pitch It to Your Team

Everyone will know who’s doing what and when without having to search through email chains and multiple applications. Documents will be easier to find and organized within project plans and tasks. We can easily share documents, updates, and statuses through LiquidPlanner, giving 24/7 access to everyone.

Benefit #3: Increased Autonomy

Employing practices that make employees feel like robots on assembly lines, micromanaging for example, is a really effective way to reduce employee engagement. This leads to increased stress, higher turnover, and less effective employees.

But give them room to make their own decisions, think for themselves, and take ownership, and motivation will steadily begin to rise.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink cites a study conducted at Cornell University that looked at the effects of autonomy at 320 small businesses in the United States. Half of the companies granted workers more autonomy, the other relied on top-down direction.

Those businesses that gave employees autonomy:

  • Grew four times faster than the businesses using command and control management.
  • Experienced one-third of the turnover.

Obviously, there’s a fine line between giving employees autonomy over their work and letting the inmates run the prison. And, that’s where a project management tool like LiquidPlanner comes in.

One of the major differences between LiquidPlanner and a tool like Microsoft Project is increased visibility. With traditional PM tools, it’s difficult to fully collaborate. Sometimes only one person has access to the actual tool and, thus, the actual plan. Cloud-based tools allow all team members to access and work within the tool autonomously. No more waiting for updates. No more wondering what to work on next.

Now, everyone will have access to the same information at the same time. It’s easier to stay on top of what’s going on and know what needs to be done next.

And, greater autonomy = greater employee engagement.

Pitch It to Your Team

No more tracking down status updates and wondering what’s next in the project plan. With LiquidPlanner, every member of the team has 24/7, instant access our project plans. That means fewer surprises, less wait time, and the ability to see what upcoming work.

Tying It All Together

You now have three solid talking points you can use to describe the benefits of LiquidPlanner to your team. But don’t stop there. Seize the excitement and momentum of this conversation by introducing your plan for implementation.

These resources will help you build a successful rollout plan:

5 Steps to a Successful Rollout of LiquidPlanner

Preparing for Liftoff: Building an Implementation Plan

Getting Started Video Series

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.

Looking for more project management and career advice?

Lessons from My Winding Path to Project Management

When you query a group of second graders about what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll say an astronaut, doctor, firefighter, scientist or some other cool job. By the time they’ve started college, the list has expanded to include engineers, teachers, nurses, and other perfectly reasonable jobs.

But no one picks their college because of its top-rated project management program. We are all accidental project managers.

My journey is a bit more unusual than most. I started college wanting to be a scientist and got the education to match—a PhD in Physics from MIT. But I then decided to follow another path, which has led me to project management.

From the beginning, I knew I was following an unconventional path, so I needed to keep my eyes open to the side paths that became part of my journey. It’s a journey that I’m still on and the path to its end (i.e., a comfortable retirement) remains murky, but I believe the tools and lessons that have carried me this far will carry me forward.

I hope some of my lessons can help you in your journey, as well.

Always be open.

In 1996, I had decided to move from academia to industry, but I had no experience, the wrong degrees, no connections, and really no clue on how to make that move. I took the summer off to visit family, spend a week pretending to be an oceanography graduate student, and travel around the Alaskan panhandle by ferry and foot.

On the flight home from Juneau, I started chatting with the person next to me. He was a headhunter who specialized in hiring mathematicians and physicists for Wall Street. I had no interest in moving to New York, but he was happy to share advice working with headhunters. As soon as I got back to Seattle, I followed his advice, which directly resulted in finding a perfect job. How different my life would be if I hadn’t started chatting with him!

Most people are happy to talk about what they do and offer advice. Look for people who have your dream job and reach out to them. Offer to take them out for coffee. Make it easy for them by being flexible about time and meeting near their office. Don’t ask for a job; ask for advice. If they have a job for you, they’ll let you know.

When networking, you should have an interest in what others have to offer. It’s not about you impressing them as much as learning from them. And Karma is a big part of networking: always be on the lookout for opportunities to help others.

It’s much easier today than it was in 1996, which was two years before Google was founded and six years before LinkedIn. Build your LinkedIn profile. If you ask someone to meet for coffee, you can be sure they’ll look you up there before they say yes. Just like your resume, don’t lie or exaggerate, but put your best foot forward.

Always be learning.

In the movie Paycheck, Ben Affleck starred as an engineer who has his memory wiped after every project. I found that premise absurd. Engineers (and project managers) improve by doing the work and learning from their successes and failures. If your memory was wiped after each project, you would stagnate while others kept getting better.

My first job was at Neopath, a company that made an automated microscope that diagnosed cervical cancer. I worked on a host of projects across the company, including optics, electronics, root-cause analysis, and manufacturing. What I didn’t work on was image processing, which was our core technology. But over the course of three years I learned enough to develop image processing algorithms for an automated microscope in my next job.

This happened again when I was at Calypso Medical, a company that developed an amazing technology to target radiation therapy for cancer treatment. I developed a camera system to determine the location of a sensor array, but our core technology used AC magnetic fields to determine the location of the prostate. My next job at Digital Control was developing industrial equipment using AC magnetic fields to determine the location of a underground drill.

My role at Calypso started as very technical, but once I had built a prototype and demonstrated my concept would meet our requirements, I was tasked with selecting a vendor and managing them to deliver a solution using my concept. My role became that of a project manager.

My next role at Digital Control also started out as technical, but I found my newly developed project management skills were more important to a project’s success than my technical ones.

As I found myself doing more project management at companies with no project managers, I looked elsewhere for help. I considered getting an MBA. But I couldn’t carve out the time to make that happen, so I enrolled in a certificate program for “Management in the Technology Sector.” The program included classes in project management, team leadership, and business strategy.

If you’re not learning new skills at work, it might be time for a change. Talk to your manager about taking on new responsibilities or moving to a new group. If that’s not an option, take a class or look for opportunities outside of work that will challenge you. Find a non-profit that you care about and offer to help. Before you know it, you’ll be drowning in learning opportunities.

Always be positive.

My career has had more than its share of bumps in the road. The worst was in 2008, when I was laid-off at the beginning of the Great Recession. Over 10 months, I had one phone interview.  Every day I would look for open positions and networking opportunities.

Finally I got a job running an energy efficiency project funded by the federal stimulus act. I was offered the job because of my volunteer experience founding the energy committee at the Sierra Club and my work as a project manager. Though it wasn’t my dream job, I involved myself in every aspect of the project, including marketing, training, and quality control. I met some great people and the project exceeded our targets. When the high-tech sector recovered, I moved back into product development, now with even more project management experience.

It’s great to have a vision of where you’d like your career to go and to get the experience and training you need to get there, but in the fast-moving world of technology that’s unlikely to be sufficient. So many interesting industries of today didn’t exist twenty years ago. Just in the Seattle area we have Facebook/Oculus doing virtual reality, Amazon in eCommerce, and Blue Origin in space tourism.

No one starting their career in 1997 would have thought to create the perfect path for a job working at any of these places. But if you are always learning, watching for new opportunities, and keeping a positive outlook, you might just find you’re the perfect person for the dream job you couldn’t have imagined five years earlier.

It’s fine for your journey to follow a circuitous route; sometimes that’s the only way to get to where you’re going.

6 Simple Ways Project Managers Can Improve Their Writing Skills Today

I’ve been a “professional writer” for nine years. I should be able to effortlessly crank out the words by now, right? Well, if we’re being completely honest with each other, I’ve spent 15 minutes on this intro alone. It’s a slog. Every. Time.

Writing is a hard skill to master (and that’s coming from someone who does this for a living). And just when you think you’ve got it, you find yourself staring at an ugly first draft, wondering where the magic went.

But here’s the good news: you don’t need to master it. No one expects literary quality from your briefs and emails. In fact, if you’ve done it well, no one will notice your writing.

In business writing, you have a simple goal: to clearly and concisely share your message. You’re not going to begin a quarterly earnings report with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Unless you’re an aspiring business novelist (Eliyahu Goldratt, anyone?), you can leave the prose to Dickens.

Why Solid Writing Skills Make a Difference for Project Managers

When I give this spiel to fellow office dwellers, it’s sometimes met with an apathetic, “Well, I’m not a writer, so it doesn’t matter.”

Hold up, I say. How many emails, IMs, briefs, and memos have you written today? Tweets? Facebook posts? Text messages? That’s what I thought.

You may not have the job title, but I’m willing to wager that you spend at least an hour or two every day writing.

For project managers, solid writing skills become even more important. The success or failure of your project hinges on your communication skills.

It’s likely that a majority of your team communications are via email, IM, or comments. In the past, how many times have you gone back and forth with people who didn’t say what they meant the first time around? How many hours have you wasted trying to decipher poorly written status updates?

Project managers also need to write important documents like project proposals and charters, training documents, plans, and reports. Considering these documents build the foundation of a project, writing plays an important role in successful execution.

Tried and True Techniques

Here are six easy techniques you can use to improve your writing skills.

Think before you write.

Sometimes we panic when we’re presented with that blank page. Just get it out, we think, as we furiously type away. What’s left is a messy brain dump of a document. While that’s a great way to kickstart your writing, it’s not a great experience for the reader.

Those extraneous details muddy the waters, and the reader walks away confused. That’s how balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, and miscommunication happens.

Before you begin writing, answer these three questions:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What do I want them to know?
  • What do I want them to do?

If you can’t immediately answer these questions, you’ll need to take a step back and collect your thoughts. Everything you write should have a clear audience and purpose.

Get to the point.

In school, we’re taught to spend our first four to five sentences warming up the reader. We then hit them with our main point at the end of the intro. While that format may have impressed your eighth grade English teacher, it’s not going to impress a hurried executive.

Instead, begin with your main point. Dedicate your first paragraph to a quick summary of the situation and the proposed solution if you’re writing longer memos. For emails, use the first sentence to summarize why you’re writing and what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re unsure, ask a colleague to read your email and summarize your message in two to three sentences. If he or she can’t do that easily (or gets it wrong), you’ll need to answer the three questions above and work on clarifying your message.

Cut out unnecessary words.

I once had a boss who was a former magazine editor. She was absolutely ruthless. When she’d return my articles, it looked like someone had squeezed a pomegranate onto the page. Red. Everywhere.

Her biggest pet peeve was needless words: very, like, that, in order to, suddenly.

The folder that you need is on my desk.

I’m reading the report in order to prepare for my meeting.

It’s very important to be on time tomorrow.

She taught me how to tighten my sentences by removing the unnecessary. Cut these filler words and your writing will immediately improve.

Empower yourself to ban the buzzwords.

Poor “empower.”

A word that once had so much meaning is now carelessly thrown around in business communications.

I mean, just look at this graph. From 1980 to now, the use of “empower” in publications has tripled.

Data from Google Ngram Viewer

Business writing is full of words like this:

  • World class
  • Circle back
  • Depth and breadth
  • Visionary
  • Disruptive
  • Innovate

While these terms are sometimes accurate for the situation, I’ve found that it’s more often a sign of lazy writing. These buzzwords tend to confuse or bore your reader.

Check out this handy “bizspeak blacklist” from Harvard Business Review for a list of words to ban from your vocabulary.

Read what you write.

Pretend that you’re the reader. Is your point clear and concise? Does it flow clearly from one idea to another? Or is it abrupt and confusing? Is the call to action obvious? Reading your work aloud can be incredibly helpful. You’ll quickly notice jarring sentence structures and words that trip up your reader.

Good writing is like music. It should have a rhythm. Watch what writing guru Gary Provost does here:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”

Reading your work out loud (or loudly in your head if you don’t want to interrupt your colleagues) will help you hear the music (or lack thereof) in your writing.

Read other people’s writing.

Finally, if you want to be a writer, you also need to be a reader. Don’t limit yourself to business books. Read novels, newspapers, blogs, longform journalism. As you read, take note of the writer’s style and structure. Think about ways you can apply these things to your own writing.

And don’t forget to enjoy it. After you apply these techniques, you may find that maybe writing isn’t so bad after all.

My Favorite Books About Writing

Check out these books for more advice on writing:

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Nonfiction by William Zinsser

Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.