“This girl came to play,” Marchant Couick said as she motioned toward 14-year-old Zanaasha, who was furiously taking notes at the front of the LiquidPlanner lunch room. Zanaasha smiled. She continued to write as Couick explained her work as a renewal specialist to the roomful of eighth-graders.
The five other panelists went down the line, telling the students from Seattle Girls’ School about their jobs. Then LiquidPlanner CEO Liz Pearce asked if anyone has questions.
A hand went up. “What framework do you use?”
“Ruby on Rails,” said Ellen Musick, a software engineer at LiquidPlanner.
Another hand. “This question is for you,” she said, pointing at Zareen Maurer, senior marketing manager. “How do you know what message to send?”
Maurer gave an overview of inbound marketing and the tools LiquidPlanner uses to deliver the right messages at the right time.
After the panel discussion, the students were quizzed on their knowledge of software, marketing, and sales terminology. Three students got perfect scores, earning them LiquidPlanner swag.
The girls’ visit to LiquidPlanner on April 21 was just one stop on their “Entrepreneur Day,” which included stops at startups around Seattle. This is the third year that LiquidPlanner has hosted students from SGS. Pearce came up with the annual field trip idea with a group of female CEOs who visited Seattle Girls’ School.
“The goal is to show the girls what kinds of STEM jobs are out there,” said Pearce. “We want them to see that careers in technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are all within the realms of possibility.”
During lunch, I sat down with Kyleigh, Grace, Zanaasha, and Belle, all 14, who have ambitious dreams for their careers.
“A lot of people make fun of me for this,” Belle said. “But, I want to be a museum librarian. I want to organize things, so people can enjoy them.”
Zanaasha knows she wants to work in politics. Grace isn’t quite sure. “I really love nature, but I also really love dance,” she said.
Kyleigh wants to be a fashion designer or an author. “She writes the best fan fiction,” Zanaasha told me. “I don’t know anything about Star Wars, but her stories made me like it.”
While none of the girls I spoke with expressed an outright interest in STEM careers before the talk began, they all listened intently, asked questions, and seemed to come away with a better understanding of career options in the technology field.
And that’s really the goal of events like Entrepreneur Day. Grace’s love of nature may lead to a career in biology. Kyleigh could use engineering skills to build better running shoes. Zanaasha may someday help bridge the gap between science and politics. Belle may design new ways to enhance museum-goers’ experience.
But first, they need that spark.
SGS Students’ Key Takeaways from Entrepreneur Day:
They have all the snacks that you could eat. That would be awesome.
All the people had really different ideas of what they were going to be when they were younger. No one really knew what they’d be when they grew up.
Free cookies at a job would be awesome.
More than 50% of the people that work there are women. That’s pretty cool.
There are so many different jobs within a single company!
Sometimes you have to fail to succeed.
There is always a new idea to be discovered.
Feature photo credit: Erika Bailey, Seattle Girls’ School
If a project team is struggling, a common reaction is to host a daily stand-up meeting. The term “stand-up” has a wide interpretation. Many of the stand-ups I’ve attended have turned into sit-downs because the meeting lasted for an hour rather than a few minutes.
In these stand-ups, project managers typically review a project schedule, assign tasks, and discuss an open list of issues. In Agile projects, the stand-up is optimized to focus on existing work in progress, next steps, and current roadblocks.
Regardless of Agile or non-Agile projects, I’ve seen team struggle with these questions:
Who is working on what?
What is the status of a given task or deliverable?
Why is the task taking so long?
Why isn’t a team member pulling his weight?
Why isn’t that task finished?
Project managers apply tools and project schedules to help track the work and answer these questions. The Gantt chart is a useful tool to determine who is working on specific tasks and to track task status. Despite its utility, an exhaustive project schedule can be overwhelming for team members, stakeholders, and even project managers.
The Gantt chart can be overwhelming on large projects as team members want to know what to work on now instead of all the tasks across the project lifetime.
An alternative solution is to use a Kanban board,also know as the Card View in LiquidPlanner, to bring clarity and focus to project delivery.
The Kanban solution has its roots in Japanese manufacturing and is associated with instruction cards being sent through the production assembly line. Software tools have enabled the Kanban solution to work across virtual teams and promote better collaboration and productivity.
With a Kanban board, tasks start in a To Do column and move across different column statuses until the work is Done. Kanban boards can be setup based on a business process or a team’s workflow. In the example above I use the following columns with my teams:
To Do – Unstarted tasks
In Progress – Active unfinished tasks
Blocked – Tasks that are blocked due to an issue
Customer Review – Tasks ready for customer review and approval
Done – Completed tasks
As team members work on each card, they move their tasks across the different columns. By focusing on the work in manageable chunks, the team can see the status of the work in process. If tasks are blocked, the team can discuss the issues and work together to either remove the blockage or defer the task to another time. If the task is rejected by the customer or there is a problem with the deliverable, the card is move back to the In Progress column for rework.
The Kanban board offers several benefits to help improve productivity, including:
Identification of project bottlenecks
Defined focus on specific work
Drive for completion
While a project schedule is an excellent forecasting tool and identifies who is responsible for specific tasks, the Kanban board is more effective to drive productivity because of the transparency provided to the team. If a team member is assigned a task and hasn’t moved it to the In Progress column or isn’t demonstrating progress, the entire team is aware. Teams can break down the tasks into smaller cards so progress can be visibly observed.
By glancing at the Kanban board, the team knows the status. It improves communication visually, identifies delays, and provides a subset of tasks for team to focus on and deliver. As cards move from To-Do to Done, there is a sense of accomplishment and drive to complete the set of tasks within the given time period. The transparency is also motivating as each person knows the team is depending on them for specific tasks especially when the board is reviewed daily.
Using the Kanban Board in Your Daily Stand Up
In my Agile teams, reviewing the Kanban board at the daily stand-up was instrumental in communication and improving productivity. In prior Agile projects, I’ve been on teams where the group talks about their accomplishments, roadblocks, and upcoming tasks but they never tied the progress to the board. If you’re not implementing Agile principles, the Kanban board can still be useful by focusing on the key tasks within the next couple of weeks on the project schedule.
Each team member should be working on one and only one card on the Kanban board. Working on the highest priority card first and moving it to done allows the team to focus versus switching between multiple tasks. I’m not a fan of multitasking as the switching cost kills productivity. If the card can’t be progressed any further, it is moved to the blocked column and the next item on the board can be started.
Switching between Kanban and Traditional Planning
The Kanban board is one tool to help improve productivity and works well with a subset of tasks. “Sprints” work well with Kanban boards because the cards represent a subset of the overall schedule. Using software-based Kanban boards provides better communication with other stakeholders and still lowers the project managers administrative burden.
With LiquidPlanner, the team member can click on a specific card and update the remaining effort, update sub-tasks, and provide collaborate in threaded discussions. Project managers can use the Kanban board to manage week-long execution and then switch to the Gantt Chart view to assess the overall project progress.
Give Kanban a Try
Organizations have a never ending stream of work and teams are always looking for better ways to communicate, collaborate and deliver work better. Kanban provides the visibility to team progress and accountability. It also reinforces each person’s individual commitment to “move the ball forward” on card at a time.
As a project manager, you clearly see the benefits of time tracking. It allows you to monitor the cost of projects, accurately bill customers, and forecast future project timelines.
But getting your team to feel the same appreciation for timesheets? Well, that can be a challenge.
If you’ve sang the praises of time tracking but your team isn’t listening, it may be time to dig deeper to get to the bottom of the issue.
Read on to understand how your tools and processes could be holding your team back and what you can do to fix the problem.
1. Your outdated tools weren’t built for today’s workforce.
In a world with self-driving cars and supercomputers that can win Jeopardy, why are so many still completing timesheets by hand?
Outdated technology is one of the most common issues that teams face, says Geoff Hash, an employment law attorney. In his practice,Hash sees a number of cases related to wage and hour issues, specifically issues related to tracking time.
“The technology that is made available to employees is not keeping up with their workstyles,” he says. “For example, I have a lot of [clients] that have remote employees now, but they don’t have online timekeeping systems.”
Some of his clients still use punch clocks and written timesheets. In this age of multitasking, that can be problematic, says Hash. “People don’t track time while they are actually working a project, and time gets lost. That’s lost revenue for the employer and potential lost income for the employee.”
2. You have a tool, but your team doesn’t know how to use it.
Hash has seen companies invest money in a tool, but never train their employees how to actually use it. That’s problematic for obvious reasons. “Training is a big component,” he adds. “Often times, employees, especially hourly employees, don’t have an understanding of what the expectations are.”
3. Your team fear retribution from management.
Another barrier to accurate time tracking is fear of judgement, says Hash. “Employees are afraid they will be criticized if they spend too much time on a certain project or if they’re working overtime.”
That leads to not reporting time accurately, even if that means they won’t be paid for the work. Employees too often have a mindset of, “If I go over what my boss thinks is reasonable, I’m going to get dinged.”
4. Your team thinks timesheets are a waste of time.
Having to recall how every minute of the day was spent can be incredibly time-consuming. Ironic, considering time tracking is supposed to boost productivity.
How to Remove Bottlenecks and Make Timesheets Less Painful
1. First, seek your team’s perspectives.
When blogger and community manager Chad Renando asked employees at his studio about timesheets, he discovered that: his team was frustrated with the tracking interface; multitasking made accurate tracking a challenge; employees did not know which task to assign the time to; and oftentimes, they didn’t have enough time to record their work.
With this feedback in hand, he was able to pinpoint and systematically resolve the issues. And, surprise surprise, timesheets became less of a pain.
As you’re having these conversations, listen for clues. Is the software difficult to use? Is the process time-consuming? Note which issues continually come up in conversations and make a plan to remove these barriers.
2. Audit your timekeeping processes and software.
Have you documented the beginning-to-end process for your team’s timesheets? It may be more time-consuming than you think.
When I was working the agency trenches, my process went like this: Throughout the day, I’d track my time in 15-minute increments on a printed spreadsheet. Sometimes I’d get caught up in the whirlwind that is agency life and miss a few hours. Then I’d have to go through my emails and meeting calendar and take a guess at how long I spent on each task. (Bad, I know. But it happens.)
On Friday, I would open our time entry software, add up the totals from my spreadsheet, and manually enter the time. Every task had a unique client and project number. If I didn’t know the numbers, I’d have to search my email or track down the account manager. Sometimes I’d have more than 20 different jobs I’d need to track time to.
I usually blocked off 90 minutes every Friday for this manual entry. That’s in addition to the time I spent during the week. At the rate I billed, those two plus hours each week added up to more than $300 each week, $15,000 every year.
These types of inefficiencies could be lurking in your own team’s process. Conduct an audit to identify bottlenecks and the issues that are preventing your teams from reaching optimal timesheet efficiency.
3. Automate, automate, automate your process.
What would have made my agency process faster? Automation. Timers that run in the background make it easier to track time as employees switch tasks.
At LiquidPlanner, I’m tracking time again, but it’s much easier than my agency days. No pen and paper required. When I begin a task now, I start a timer in LiquidPlanner. That timer is connected to the task I’m working on (no more searching for job numbers!). When I’m done with that task, I turn off the timer. The time is automatically added to my timesheet and tracked within the task. I track as I work, and it’s directly tied to the projects I’m working on.
There are hundreds of time tracking tools out there. The key is finding one that meets the needs of your team, is easy to use, and won’t add unnecessary work to your team’s plates. If you’re looking for ideas, check out Zapier’s comprehensive rundown of the top tools on the market.
4. Review the data with an open mind.
As Hash said, fear of judgement is often a top barrier to accurate, completed timesheets. Instead of jumping to conclusions, managers need to take a step back and observe the larger picture. For example, if someone is working overtime week after week, it may be an issue with staffing and not that particular employee, says Hash. It’s on the employer to evaluate the overall project needs and match the project with the right skill levels.
5. Tie timesheets to a greater mission.
Let’s all just agree right now that timesheets aren’t fun, okay? No one wants to do them. To motivate your team team to complete them, you need to tie it back to a greater mission. Explain how timesheets help the company make money or cut out inefficiencies. And explain why these things are important to your employees, e.g. they get a paycheck.
At my agency, every employee had a coaster on their desk that read, “Do great work. Bill great work.” Every time I sipped my coffee, I was reminded of how every 15-minute increment I recorded contributed to the agency’s profitability.
Project managers — what strategies have helped you motivate your team to track time?
Looking for more project management tips and advice? Check out this eBook by PM expert Elizabeth Harrin.Over 30 pages, you’ll get Elizabeth’s take on a range of project management and workplace topics, including:
After World War II, new theories about quality began to be implemented. Many of these ideas were brought to Japan and embraced by the country as it rebuilt in the years after the war. These ideas would ultimately change manufacturing and the world.
“Continuous improvement” was one of these ideas. The Japanese distilled the essence of this idea to a single word: “kaizen.” It is a quality philosophy that includes improvement of the product, the processes the design and produce them, and the way the teams carry out those processes.
For example, the old way would take a product, get it into its category, optimize the process, and sit back and make money. In fact, we even talk about mature products as being a “cash cow.” Or, something you milk for cash as long as it produces.
Kaizen, however, is part of a different way of looking at things. A product or a process will likely never be “good enough.” As the name implies, the goal is to never stop improving.
This idea can make a tremendous difference in the product you manufacture today and how you do it. But what if your company doesn’t practice kaizen? In this article, we will explore seven ways to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization–even if you’re starting from scratch.
It’s important to remember that changing the culture of an organization is notoriously difficult. Companies are (in)famous for starting an initiative and then quietly abandoning it, and that is especially true for something like continuous improvement.
Kaizen is not flashy, and it’s not instantly transformative. It takes time to implement, and the benefits realization can sometimes be agonizingly slow.
This isn’t just some new initiative. It’s a culture change, and changing the culture is one of the most difficult things a leader can undertake.
In the 1990s movie “What About Bob”, Bill Murray plays Bob, a man paralyzed by decisions until his psychologist suggests that he practice “baby steps.” While this strategy backfires for the psychologist, those looking to implement a culture of continuous improvement will benefit from the advice. It takes baby steps.
If you are ready to try to implement a culture of continuous improvement in your organization, these seven steps will help you get there.
Commit throughout the organization. That is a big part of what makes this work. It’s not just the people at the top or the bottom of an organization that make continuous improvement possible. There is no more “us and them” mentality. Everyone needs to be moving toward the same goal.
Make kaizen part of the new routine. At some automobile factories, small teams meet before work each week to talk about one tiny change they are going to try to implement in order to improve their process. Continuous improvement is something that needs to be revisited regularly. The routine is key to sustaining it.
Tie it back to everyone’s job. Some people will almost certainly look at this as just one more new initiative that they simply need to outlive. To take it seriously, they may need to incentivized.
Measure the results. (If it’s done right, these should be positive, and these are usually cumulative). Continuous improvement is metrics-driven. This means that terms like good, bad, and better become very objective. Continuous improvement works, but it takes time. It’s like saving money: at first, the benefits (e.g., interest) you earn is barely noticeable. But once you have enough, the interest income starts to add up. Before long, you are earning interest on your interest.
Communicate. Unlike some initiatives, you may not have quick wins. It will probably take time, because continuous improvement is not instantly transformative. Keep everyone aware of what is going on while you are waiting for the results to speak for themselves.
Be deliberate and patient. Creating a culture of continuous improvement is an exercise in demonstrating continuous improvement. You need serious commitment and sustained energy. Many of us make a practice to look for the quickest, highest value wins. Kaizen is more like the effect of oceans on the beach. It’s relentless and disciplined. It can take time to produce the results that many organizations want. A company with this kind of mindset may not be completely ready for kaizen. Also, keep this in mind: even if you have a healthy organization, it will likely be resistant to change.
Repeat. These are baby steps, and this is the real heart of continuous improvement. Go over these steps again and again. This is continuous; you will never really be finished.
Creating a culture of continuous improvement will not only help make the product better. It helps make the teams and the organizations better, and like compounding interest, the benefits keep coming.
I’ll be the first to admit: I’m quite technologically-averse, especially for a millennial who works for a SaaS company. I can count the number of apps I use regularly on one hand. I copy my husband’s digital grocery list to paper before I head to the store. I only use my GPS after I’ve already become hopelessly lost. Until very recently, my to-do lists for work were scattered across several notebooks and sticky notes.
But lately I’ve been wondering, am I missing out? How many hours of my life are wasted as I transcribe yet another grocery list? Are there apps out there that could help me “live my best life”, to borrow a phrase from Oprah, one of the most productive people in the world.
I had to know. But first I needed some recommendations, so I turned to my colleagues at LiquidPlanner. Obviously, LiquidPlanner is everyone’s favorite productivity-boosting tool here. So I posed the question: what is your second favorite time-saving, productivity-boosting tool?
Here’s what they told me:
Devon Burns, Product Manager
My favorite time-saving tool is 1Password. It’s a great place to keep not only your passwords, but other important information that you want to keep secure. It’s easy to have it all in one place. With the browser extension, 1Password automatically enters usernames and passwords on your saved sites. That saves time. It’s also more secure than a notebook of passwords and using the same password for every account.
Adam Sanderson, Engineering Manager
My wife and I use Wunderlist to share grocery lists. Before I started using the app, I would take her phone to the store. [Wunderlist] is easier. We can sync our lists now, so I don’t need to write out a list or steal my wife’s phone anymore.
Evan Goad, Software Engineer
My favorite productivity tool is Alfred. While it only saves a few seconds of your time when you use it, those seconds add up. It saves time on things I do a lot over the day, like searching for files or switching between applications. The keyboard shortcuts can be personalized. I use them to switch between Chrome, Outlook, and my developer terminal.
Lisa Ma, Customer Success Specialist
When I went looking for something to organize my to-do lists, I tried three different tools: Remember the Milk, Todoist, and Wunderlist. My favorite was Wunderlist. I use it for managing my recipes. I can add the ingredients and steps to the app. If anyone asks for the recipe, I can easily share it with them. It’s easier than going to Pinterest, finding the board, finding the pin. Wunderlist also automatically groups tasks by deadline. And it’s easy to collaborate, if the other party is agreeable to that.
Sheri Eames, Accounting Manager
My favorite tool is Zendesk. I use it to collect money and manage transactions. I like that I don’t have to filter through my email, looking for the related conversations. All conversations are saved in the app. It’s also helpful for a multi-person department. If I’m out of the office, my colleagues can check on status and communication without having to access my email. I’ve found it to be a huge timesaver.
As I mentioned earlier, my previous work management system consisted of to-do lists in three notebooks and sticky notes that could be mistaken for a Kanban board but were really just stuck on my desk without rhyme or reason.
I lived that way until five weeks ago, when I began my job at LiquidPlanner. Now my tasks and to-dos are neatly prioritized within the tool. I still keep a paper to-do list–though it only includes today’s tasks, which I pull from the My Work tab in LiquidPlanner each morning. Despite being a self-described technophobe, I’ve found LiquidPlanner to be the solution I needed to organize my professional world.
And for those hours I’m not at work? Well, I’m still copying grocery lists by hand. Baby steps.
What’s your favorite time-saving, productivity-boosting tool?
What happens when uncertainty and risk are poorly handled during a project? Almost always, it results in missed deadlines, wasted time, and unhappy stakeholders.
I once took over a project that did not have requirements documents. The developers were writing code without a solid vision of what it should do. When they shared their results, the stakeholders would complain and send them back to rework the code, which wasted everyone’s time. Later, we discovered the hardware would not work, requiring them to start over with a new architecture. That wasted even more time, and the project took twice as long to complete.
That’s what happens when uncertainty and risk are poorly handled.
For projects like hardware product development, where there is a lot of uncertainty and complexity, it’s critical to understand which tasks are most important. Otherwise, your team will find much of their effort is wasted. Successfully managing these projects requires a delicate balancing act between removing uncertainty, reducing risk, and progressing along your critical path. I call this approach “adaptive project management”, which takes elements from both waterfall/standard project management (which handles complexity well and uncertainty poorly) and agile project management (which handles uncertainty well, but complexity poorly).
Early in an adaptive project, your focus must be on removing uncertainty. How can you write code if you don’t understand the needs of your end-users or build prototypes if you don’t know what technology best meets your needs? At this point your focus will be engaging with stakeholder or end-users, exploring the capabilities of technologies you’re considering, and understanding resource and budget constraints.
This effort will continue throughout the project, but can drop off once you understand the project well enough to build a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS will include tasks to remove the remaining uncertainty. The nature of adaptive projects is that you march on with some uncertainties rather than drive them all to zero in the beginning, as you would in a waterfall project. As your uncertainties drop, your plan should start looking more waterfall.
Risks are set in the future; issues are happening now. The problem with risks is that they can develop into issues. Solving issues takes time, which can lead to delays and increased costs. The sooner you can turn risks into issues or make them go away, the better.
Once you have a reasonable understanding of your project, you need to build a risk register. Make a list of what might go wrong, how likely it is (probability), how bad it will be if it happens (severity), and what you can do if the risk occurs (mitigation). I prefer a ranking from 1 to 5. For probability, 1 corresponds to a likelihood of < 20 percent, while a 5 corresponds to a likelihood of greater than 80 percent. For severity, 1 corresponds to a small impact on the project that is unlikely to put any milestones dates or budget constraints at risk. A 5 means that the entire project might need to be canceled, possibly because a critical feature is not possible or our cost-of-goods sold will be significantly higher than expected.
I also include a column for importance, which is the product of probability and severity, and rank the risks in order of importance (see Table 1). Some of your effort should always be spent on reducing the most important risks, either by testing to see if they’re real issues or building the mitigation. This effort should be part of your work breakdown structure. I also build the mitigations of high-probability risks into the plan, with the goal of reducing surprises down the road.
Unit fails electro-compatibility testing
Build Faraday cage around electronics
Passive cooling isn’t sufficient
Add a fan
Table 1: This is a simple risk register. More complex versions include things like discoverability (how likely it is the risk will happen, but you won’t be able to detect the failure) and contingency (what you will do if the mitigation doesn’t solve the problem). I find a simple risk register sufficient and easier to keep current, which is more important.
Progressing Along the Critical Path
Once you have organized your tasks and time estimates into a work breakdown structure, you can use project management software like LiquidPlanner to build your schedule and a Gantt chart. You can then select a milestone and filter to those tasks that are on the critical path (i.e. tasks that will cause delays if they slip by a day). While all tasks need to be completed, those not on the critical path can slip without impacting deliverables.
Use your tool to determine if deliverables will be completed in time to meet stakeholders’ needs. If not, work with your stakeholders to understand how important this deliverable is and whether it can be descoped. Another possibility is to transfer resources from risk reduction to critical path tasks. If you go this route, explain to your stakeholder that this increases the chance of an issue appearing late in the project, when it’s harder to fix.
A Good PM is a Tightrope Walker
The job of the PM is to balance these three areas. Overtime the critical path will become more important and reducing risk and uncertainty less so. But there’s no formula to answer what you should do. A tool like LiquidPlanner is like the pole that helps the walker maintain his balance.
In the end, it’s up to you and your team to understand if: you’ve reduced uncertainty enough that you can start to focus on risks; that you’ve reduced risks enough that you can focus on your critical path; and that everyone is working on the most important task at that moment. When you get it wrong (e.g. a low probability risk turns into an ugly issue late in the project), just smile and focus the team on what are now the most important tasks.
In the world of project management, data is key. However, measuring and tracking the right information from project kickoff all the way to delivery is never an easy feat.
That’s why we’ve been cooking up product improvements that not only deliver better data for all aspects of your projects, but also give you a way to make sense of that data. Because data without analysis is just numbers.
This month, we’re excited to share two updates that will help you gain deeper insights, more accurately track information across all projects, and save time and money.
Track, Manage, and Organize with More Flexible Custom Fields
Every project is unique, and teams need to accurately track information that is specific to the way they work. There are a multitude of processes, communication, and metadata that needs to get captured, especially with more complex projects.
That’s where Custom Fields come in. You can track any aspect of your project by creating fields for things like project status, product lines, or business regions.
With the April update, we’ve added Text Custom Fields, a new type of field that offers even more flexibility. Now teams can enter a single-line text entry for specific task or project fields. Create fields for part numbers, unique codes, risk reasons, or any other part of your team’s process.
Workspace administrators can create Text Custom Fields in the Data Customization section in Settings. Once the field is created, anyone can add relevant information directly to their tasks or projects.
See the Whole Picture with Sub-Folder Reporting
Complex projects often have a number of distinct stages that project managers use to track progress or costs incurred. For some teams, getting meaningful data for these separate phases is just as important as reporting on the project as a whole.
That’s why we’ve introduced sub-folder reports to Dashboards and Analytics. In one click, teams can quickly see progress, financials, and risk information for any phase of a project.
Visit a dashboard to get a clear visual on how much work has gone into each phase:
Or, run a Sub-folder Report in Analytics to see where you stand for your billable hours:
Getting the right data and reports is only half the battle. It’s what you do with that information that makes project management a little bit art and a little bit science.
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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?
Every day, millions of Americans lose precious minutes of their lives to meetings. Boring, unproductive meetings.
Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn estimates that Americans attend 11 million formal meetings every day, about 4 billion meetings a year. And over half of the people her team surveyed said the meetings were unproductive. Ouch.
Don’t despair just yet. Forward-thinking executives have found ways to make their meetings more productive, cost-effective, and efficient. Borrow some of their strategies for making meetings less of a timesuck:
To get the best ideas, invite candor and constructive criticism into your meeting room.
It’s a common refrain echoed in many corporate rooms around America: leave criticism and negative feedback at the door. The idea was first championed by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who pioneered the brainstorm.
In his book “Your Creative Power” he writes, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”
While it sounds good in theory, many researchers have argued that this approach often results in fewer ideas and less creativity. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney, would agree.
Catmull has built a culture where people feel free to share their ideas, opinions and even criticisms. In his book “Creativity, Inc.”, Catmull writes that candor is the key to Pixar’s success. Rather than checking opinions and criticism at the door, Catmull encourages his team to embrace and share them.
He writes, “Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the ﬁrst versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”
While Pixar president Ed Catmull uses the word candor to describe his meeting style, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s style could be described as confrontational. One of Amazon’s Leadership Principles sums it up: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”
Bezos is well known for hating “social cohesion”, our human tendency to seek agreement and consensus. Like Catmull, he encourages his employees to call out bad ideas, disagree, and challenge each other.
In your next meeting, encourage open dialogue and embrace candor (and maybe even a little conflict). Don’t be afraid to debate ideas, ask questions, and push ideas toward excellence.
Keep it small, smart, and simple. (Or, would two pizzas feed everyone in this meeting?)
In his book “Insanely Simple,” longtime Steve Jobs collaborator Ken Segall tells the story of a weekly meeting with Apple’s ad agency. Jobs had just begun the meeting when he noticed someone new. “Who are you?” he asked. When her answer didn’t suffice, Jobs replied, “I don’t think we need you in this meeting. Thanks.” As she collected her belongings, Jobs continued the meeting as if nothing had happened.
This principle of keeping meetings small is part of Jobs’ larger focus on Simplicity, one of the driving forces behind Apple. “When he called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome,” Segall writes.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos follows the Two Pizza Rule. When you’re creating a meeting invitation, consider the number of people you can feed with two pizzas. That’s the most you should invite.
The idea is that smaller teams can help reduce groupthink, wasted time, and watered down ideas. Keep it small, simple, and don’t let anyone go hungry.
Ban presentations and replace bullet points with narrative.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t have time for PowerPoint presentations. He’d much rather read a 6-page memo.
Seriously. Executive team meetings at Amazon begin with everyone absorbing the written word – sometimes for 30 minutes. These memos, which the executives call “narratives”, have four main elements:
The context or question.
Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions.
How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches?
Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
While it would be easy to quickly gloss over these points in a presentation, writing a structured narrative requires the author to form coherent thoughts, dig deep into the subject, anticipate tough questions, and formulate responses. The narratives also give everyone a chance to be heard, especially those who prefer to “speak” through writing rather than an oral presentation.
If you start asking your team for 6-page memos before every meeting, you could have a mutiny on your hands. But, you can encourage your team to spend less time creating beautiful presentations and more time on thinking through the real meat of the subject they’re addressing.
More Meeting Tips from Executives
Here are some additional tips from America’s top executives:
Have a stated purpose or agenda. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer requires an agenda in advance of every meeting. By sending it in advance, participants can prepare, know what will be discussed, and see if they’re relevant to the meeting versus being part of a blanket invite. Sticking to prepared agendas during meetings helps attendees focus on the goal and what needs to be achieved.
Create a list of action items at the end of every meeting. The follow-up memo was a go-to tool for Alfred Sloan, who ran GM from the 1920s to the ‘50s. After each meeting, he would send a memo to all participants that outlined decisions made, action items, deadlines, and the executives responsible for each item.
Set an end time. Constraints, deadlines, and limitations often lead to bursts of creativity, while a meeting with no end leads to…well, not much. Need help keeping yourself accountable? Try setting a timer.
Have you tried any of these strategies? If so, what has (or hasn’t) worked for you in the past?
A seemingly simple question that can become a project management nightmare to manage.
If you don’t give an answer, you’re viewed as incompetent and unable to estimate. (How could you NOT know? After all, you’re the project manager!) If you give a qualified answer, you risk being held to that original date despite the need to analyze requirements further, discuss with vendors and do proper project planning.
If you’re right and the project delivers on time, you’ll be heralded as a “someone who can deliver.” If you’re wrong, you’ll be regarded as “someone who can’t deliver.” The reality is you’re only as good as your last project and achieving a project date given months in advance is based on leadership, a drive for results, successfully managing expectations and let’s face it—luck!
Instead of relying on luck to deliver our projects, we need to change the way we communicate a project’s launch date and overall project costs.
In over 20 years of working in the software industry, the only thing I am certain about is uncertainty. No two projects are ever the same. Even if you manage similar projects, the requirements vary, the people and stakeholder needs change, the technology platforms adjust and the business has different priorities and project constraints. Due to these ever changing factors, software projects are full of uncertainty.
Good project managers will put risk management, change control and communication plans in place to manage scope and balance uncertainty. However, even better project managers look to embrace change and uncertainty while planning for it! One of the reason’s Agile software management practices have been so popular is they help teams embrace uncertainty.
The Cone of Uncertainty has been around since the 1950s but is popular among Agile teams to explain why a project’s effort and scope could be either 4 times or ¼ the size of the original estimate. Over time, the estimation variability decreases as the project team understand more about the requirements and the actual effort to deliver the project.
How to Embrace Uncertainty in Software Projects
Project teams can help embrace uncertainty by applying several approaches, including:
1. Embrace rolling planning and incremental funding.
Rolling planning helps project teams and customers refine estimates and make better decisions across the project lifecycle. Instead of funding an entire project, fund an Analysis phase or fund a few sprints to develop a valid proof of concept. Once the analysis or the proof of concept is completed, the team will have better estimates and can refine the project dates and the project costs.
This approach impacts traditional financial processes and budgeting as stakeholders need to request a budget first but can’t commit upfront to the end date and final deliverables. Transparency, incremental delivery and upfront communication on project unknowns is critical to clearing this hurdle.
2. Use ranged estimation versus single point estimates.
The LiquidPlanner blog has several articles highlighting the benefits of ranged estimates vs. single point estimates. Team members will find it easier to provide a high and low estimate vs. a single point estimate as it gives them some wiggle room for unknowns. As the task progresses, the same ranged estimate for remaining work is provided.
The team can speak to status using these ranges and over time they will have greater confidence in a project’s expected finish date. Knowing a tool like LiquidPlanner provides this level of estimation at the project and task level is very helpful in clarifying uncertainty.
3. Deliver highest value features first.
Another Agile concept to manage the Cone of Uncertainty is to deliver higher value features first. In a past Kronos timekeeping implementation for a manufacturing organization, my team focused on delivering the core timekeeping features early in the project before moving on to the workforce management features. The plant wanted the plant floor workforce management features but there were a lot of union specific rules that needed to be sorted out before the package could be configured (i.e. uncertainty).
By delivering the timekeeping features first, we met a critical business need. The labor rules were so convoluted that the workforce management features were never implemented. Focusing on the features that provided the greatest return improved the project satisfaction. Worrying about a resource indicator that would never be activated due to business and technology issues was non-value add.
4. Communicate the unknowns early.
Successful project management is based on trust, collaboration and frequent communication on the project health. By communicating the unknowns early and providing options to address uncertainty, both stakeholders have an equal opportunity to manage the risk affecting project timelines and deliverables. The problems start when the client and the delivery team fail to maintain trust and communication.
Project teams will always have challenges managing the project triangle of scope, cost and time. At the start of a project, uncertainty is at its largest and teams need to avoid making promises they can’t keep. A better approach is to work incrementally, provide frequent feedback and use effective tools to help forecast end dates based on actual data instead of emotion.
Uncertainty will always exist. The best approach is to embrace it rather than ignore it.
Managing projects is hard work. You need to have a wide range of knowledge and skills—from tracking schedules and satisfying stakeholders to juggling people and technical skills. This eBook, How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges, provides practical tips and solutions to common project management challenges. You’ll also see how LiquidPlanner helps you meet your challenges—and turn them into opportunities!