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Keep the Solution Simple When Your Project Teams Are Struggling

Pearce Nov20 IMG01I hear stories like this all the time: “Our project teams are in chaos and our executives are insisting on some kind of ‘fire and forget’ solution that does not slow down the business.”

Every project manager needs to join me in a collective groan so that we can move on to talking about a practical solution to this seemingly intractable problem.

Now and Zen

First, put your PMP certification back in the box it came in. We won’t be using it today.

Organizations with broken project management processes need to fix their root social issues first. Rarely is the team lacking the ability to get projects done. Usually, the rate of success is throttled by a lack of organization, prioritization and transparency. The problem is in people’s heads. Scratch that—the problem is that the solution is NOT in their heads. 

If you want to solve productivity woes, you have to guide the organization into seeing things they are currently unaware of. Being productive is a state of mind. If you can achieve this with your teams, then better decision making will emerge and your business metrics will follow with measurable, improved productivity.

Motion is Your New Metric

Every hour of every workday, your project team is making micro decisions about what to do next and how to do it. How much people know about the mission and how connected they feel with it will have a huge impact on how this plays out. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that just being able to recall the distant goal is sufficient for your project team to make daily decisions. If you can’t answer the question, “How do my team members figure out what they should be working on from day to day?” in one sentence, you can guarantee that wheels are spinning. 

People face questions of motivation and focus constantly and make tens, if not hundreds, of micro decisions a day about what to do next. Should I research this more? Should I talk to somebody about X? Should I report this issue? Should I get off Facebook now? Skulls are noisy places and micro decision making is where bad practices take root. That’s what we’re hunting here—a meaningful appeal to the hearts and minds of your project team. 

The approach we offer here is simple: time spent will be categorized as either Forward Motion or Lateral Motion. Motion is a pretty easy concept for most people to understand: “Are we moving forward or laterally?” In any game you play, there must be forward motion to win. If you’re standing still, there’s a target on your back. 

So Easy a Sixth Grader Can Understand It

Take your average Xbox-playing sixth grader with a homework project. Imagine he or she is facing a three-page writing project with just four nights to do it and only the opportunity to get one page done a night.

If you ask the young gamer if they’d like to get started on the project tonight or play Xbox, I’d wager a power-up that the answer would be Xbox. He’ll likely give the same answer again the next night, and the next – right up until his teacher is asking if the dog ate his homework. 

That conversation changes, however, when you introduce transparency. Consider the following decision tree.

Kids (and most adults) can figure out how to win at this game very quickly when you lay it out in a concrete way. The difference between forward motion (getting a page of the homework done) and lateral motion (playing Xbox) is obvious
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Finding Lost Simplicity

So why is this simple perspective lost in business? It’s an easy answer—the scale of the game is much bigger than anyone can hold in their head. The previous diagram can fit on a page and is not in a state of constant flux. Most teams have to process a continual stream of scope changes, issues, new projects, and changes to strategy. 

Yet the principles remain the same. If you want better results, people are going to have to visualize the game mechanics, increase forward moves, and reduce lateral moves. To do so takes (at least) three steps. 

Step 1 – Transparency

Work will have to be identified and loaded into an online project management system that everyone can access. LiquidPlanner is built for this, but other products offer shared, collaborative project management environments, depending on your scale. If your project team is small enough, even a whiteboard can work.

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This transparency thing is critical. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you are not going to care if the forest is on fire. If you can’t see that somebody else will fail if you choose poorly, then you won’t decide in favor of forward motion if a lateral move is more interesting at the moment.

Step 2 – Tag what’s Important (and Track it All)

Tag every task that moves a project to completion with [FM] for Forward Motion. Just tack it on to the end of the task names like this:

  • Design mockup for start screen [FM]
  • Design mockup for customer profile [FM]
  • Code sign up form [FM]

Now, ask that your team track time on all tasks for the next 90 days, including the Lateral Motion tasks, like these:

  • Meetings
  • Processing email
  • Support work

Make sure EVERYONE knows what you’re doing. Ask them to add the [FM]s when they add project tasks. Incentivize them to track with pizza, coffee, or bribes.

Step 3 – Evolve

At the end of the 90 days, pull the data, sum up the hours spent, and then compare them against known availability. Make sure that you’re sitting down when you review the results – you might be shocked. If you’re lucky, you will already see improvement just from the transparency that was introduced. Continue learning by showing everyone the results and asking them to help figure out how to get more Forward Motion and less Lateral Motion.

Why this is the Smart Approach

This is not a “one methodology to rule them all” story. Rather “motion theory” is a stepping stone to help your organization find its way to an enduring methodology that fits just right.
The approach is simple, transparent, and gives everyone a chance to focus on making better decisions. The principle that “Lateral Motion is OK, but Forward Motion is better” should keep a project manager on solid ground even with the most change-averse holdout, yet still is tangible enough for execs who want a productivity solution yesterday.

If that’s not enough to convince you, consider the risks that come with trying to drive a big process change. The more complexity you put into a change initiative, the greater the odds are that it will get scuttled. The old Keep it Simple cliché is popular for a reason—so many people have learned it the hard way. You can save your fancy PMP techniques for the day when Forward Motion is the norm, not the exception. 

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