Author: Andrea Brockmeier

Training for Project Closure

Closing out a calendar year brings to mind the challenges of closing out projects. But unlike a calendar year, the close of a project only happens with intention. All too often, it doesn’t happen at all.

The benefits of conducting some kind of formal project closure are many, including a sense of accomplishment among project participants which improves productivity, organizational recognition of the value of the investment, and contributions to the corporate memory that serve as a resource for future projects. Project closure is not just a good idea, it’s of value to the organization.

My top tips for closing projects came from personal experience training for my first triathlon. My biggest concern going into the race was how I was going to hold up toward the end. Running is the last of the three events, and the one about which I was least confident. I wondered if I would be able to finish that last mile or if I would simply be so exhausted that I would not make it across the finish line.

As it turns out, I was so invigorated by the experience and so excited about completing the race that the closer I got, the easier it actually became as I moved toward the finish line. 

If only it were that way with projects. Often it’s the opposite with projects; our momentum peters out toward the end. In fact, unlike December 31 which is suddenly staring you in the face, it often feels like project finish lines move further from us the closer to them we get. Starting projects seems relatively easy. It’s bringing them to a close that can be frustratingly elusive.

Lessons learned from triathlon training can help bring projects to closure:

First, make sure you know what the project finish line looks like.

What kept me going in training and in the race was imagining myself crossing that finish line. The finish on a project, of course, isn’t an actual line in the sand, but it should be clear to all stakeholders what “done” looks like. Part of the reason we sometimes have a hard time getting to the end on projects is that we don’t recognize it when we see it. Define it clearly; define it early. And use it to visualize the end – just like a real finish line.

Second, measure progress regularly.

Training for a race is easy in that you can hop on a treadmill and gauge how far and how fast you are running. As your endurance increases, your confidence and momentum toward the goal of completing the race increases.

It’s not exactly that way on a project, but taking stock regularly along the way to know how you are doing relative to the objectives helps keep the “mo” on projects. Figure out how to measure progress and let everyone know where things are at. It’s usually not enough to just announce “done” at the end. Nothing is more encouraging than hearing “we’re getting there” along the way.

Third, find a mentor.

Plenty of days during training I could have found something more desirable to do than swim, bike, or run. Like laundry. But I have a friend who had done this before and who always provided the right amount of support and encouragement when I was feeling uninspired. Sharing my success with him was a treat.

Mentorship in project management can be every bit as powerful. Someone who has been there and done that and who will be a sounding board as you work through obstacles to keep your eye on the prize can be a project manager’s greatest asset.

December 31 comes whether we are ready or not. Project closure only comes with planning and effort, yet it’s as fundamental to project management as running is to a triathlon. Visualizing the finish line, regularly measuring progress, and working with a mentor can help you get to the end of your project – and close it.

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If You’re Not Tracking, You’re Guessing: 4 Tips to Improve Project Tracking

brockmeierJan22The thrill of tracking is probably not what keeps most of us in the field of project management. Unfortunately for those of us not too fond of tracking, it’s not really an option if we want to be able to answer the question most project stakeholders are asking, that is, “How’s the project going?” We also need a baseline, of course, but that isn’t much use if you don’t have something to compare against it. You are really guessing if you try to answer that question in the absence of either a baseline or tracking.

It’s been my experience that people are often pretty good at tracking in the beginning of a project. Then at some point, just keeping up with the immediate task at hand leaves little time for reporting what has already happened. As a project manager, my need for the information doesn’t go away, however.

Four things can increase the likelihood that tracking will be done and done well enough to make use of the information for solid reporting and communications.

  1. Make it visible. One of the reasons people lose interest is that they don’t think they have anything to report. It’s pretty easy to ignore project reporting if all you have to say is “I don’t have anything to report.” It’s not that people really don’t have anything to report, but the reporting requirements are such that team members haven’t accomplished enough for something to show up on the report. Breaking deliverables and related work into smaller chunks means more opportunity to show work that is done. Increased visibility into progress will appeal to both the providers as well as the consumers of project reporting.
  2. Make it easy. If you don’t have reporting formats, templates, or processes prescribed for you, ask your team members for input on how they would like to provide the information needed. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet in a shared folder somewhere; maybe it’s a hardcopy log posted somewhere; maybe it’s an email at the end of the day (with a specified subject line). There’s nothing like getting input to promote ownership and compliance. Even if there are reporting constraints you have to work with, take advantage of any flexibility to get input from the team on how to make it work easiest for them.
  3. Make it meaningful. I remember a senior management group’s dismay when team members in their organization complained about the tracking they had to do because “no one ever does anything with the information.” In fact, management was using the information team members plugged into reports for all sorts of portfolio decision making. But this was a large company with lots of distance, physically and otherwise, between project team members and senior management, and those doing the work of reporting had no insight into how the numbers were being used. Make tracking more than just a data entry exercise. Show people how the information they are reporting is used. Where does it go? Who gets it? What decisions are made based on the information? How might it impact them? Tracking becomes a lot more palatable if you understand the value of your effort to do it.
  4. Make it safe. Once you’ve convinced team members that someone really is using the tracking information they provide, make sure that isn’t understood as a reason to make the numbers look good even if they aren’t. Valuable reporting means sharing news of the good and the bad. If the numbers don’t look good, team members should expect a constructive response along the line of “What can I do to help?” If reporting that things aren’t going well is likely to provoke a rash of blame storming or mad search for a scapegoat, then expect a good deal of effort to be invested in making the numbers something that will keep report consumers happy.

Tracking may not be anyone’s favorite project management activity, but hopefully these few things can inspire more interest and participation in good tracking practice.

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The Under Promise-Over Deliver Trap

“We are scheduled to arrive 17 minutes early,” announced the pilot before takeoff on a recent flight.

“Excellent,” I said to myself. Then I got to wondering if it really was.

In fact, I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it. Does that mean we’re going to be early or does it mean we were originally scheduled to be late? And most importantly, if I decide this is a good thing, how can I use this expectation-setting strategy on my projects?

It’s critical to know what stakeholders really want. Many of them would argue that they want the truth. They want to know when things really will be done and what they’ll cost. 

But the “under promise-over deliver” mindset persists in making us feel like we are giving stakeholders what they want. Three things compromise the warm fuzzy we and our stakeholders may feel when they get something other than what’s expected.

  1. Over-deliver Repeatedly, Weaken Trust.
    It’s one thing to dazzle stakeholders with an early finish a time or two, but when done routinely, trust will be undermined. Eventually, expectations will be seen as “sandbagging” or knowingly false in order to set up the project team to look good. Stakeholders will see through this eventually and then you will have more work than you bargained for trying to set expectations and build trust.
  2. Unrealistic Expectations, Fewer Lessons Learned.
    Lessons learned become harder to interpret if we have been measuring against bogus expectations. Sure, it’s great to give the gift of an early delivery to our stakeholders, but questions we ask in the project retrospective will get changed from, “How did we do compared to how we thought we were going to do,” to “How did we do compared to how we knew we were going to do?” The value of that exercise is somewhat suspect.
  3. Shady Project Objectives, Shady Project Management
    Our stakeholders may be thrilled that we finish early and may even profess not to care that we knew we would from the beginning. What they don’t know may not hurt them, but it can hurt the project and the organization. Consider that the entire project management effort is impacted by the under promise-over deliver game. Opportunity costs for resources applied to the project, for example, or the lack of realistic insight into risks both come to mind as potential hidden costs. If we believe in the value of project management as a management core competency we need to be working with stakeholders to be transparent and partner with them to help the organizations use resources efficiently and effectively. Developing good project management practice benefits everyone in the organization and it means more than a deadline.

The more I thought about it, the more irritated I became on that flight. I wanted to know when were we scheduled to arrive and when we expected to arrive. I didn’t really care about the 17 minutes, per se. Whether we were going to be early or late wasn’t such an issue. I just needed to know what to communicate to the people waiting for me at the other end of the flight.

I’d like to think I treat my stakeholders with more transparency than the pilot of my flight. And I’d really like to think they can make better use of the information I give them.

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Virtual Meeting Challenges: Stop Fighting Multitaskers – Part 2

The frustration of multitaskers was the topic of my last, in which I reminded readers of two things most of us already know: 1) Our brains really don’t allow us to actively think about two things at once, and 2) Most of us are not able to sustain our attention on something for more than about 40 minutes.

What can a virtual team facilitator do given these real, valid constraints of attendees? Below are five virtual meeting strategies that may mitigate the tempo-busting regular request to “repeat that, please.” They won’t work for every meeting so you need to be strategic about when you try to utilize these approaches. When you really need everyone present, mentally and physically, see how these work for you:

  1. Bribe attendees.

    Give your meeting attendees the resource they value most in exchange for their attention: time. If you normally have 60 minute meetings, commit to finishing in 45 if everyone commits to closing email and putting cell phones away. This is easier said than done, for sure, but most people would be willing to try it if it means 15 more minutes for something else.

  2. Schedule longer meetings.

    OK, I just suggested the opposite, but shorter meetings won’t always work. Sometimes the purpose of the meeting requires more than 45 minutes or the opportunity for a particular group of people to meet is fleeting and has to be seized.

    In this instance, schedule what might be a 90-minute meeting for two hours, but include two 15-minute breaks. Key to this approach is getting commitment to resume on time after breaks.

  3. Identify decisions to be made in the meeting invitation.

    The purpose of the meeting should always drive all other meeting planning as I have written in a previous blog, but it can take on additional importance in a virtual team meeting environment. Along with the agenda and other pre-meeting details sent ahead of time, highlighting the decisions to be made in a meeting can help for those who get distracted during virtual meetings.

  4. Consensus Schmensus – Take a Vote and Be Done Already

    Sometimes dictatorial decision making gets a bum rap. I can think of numerous situations and a variety of circumstances in which I’ve watch people wallow in the quagmire of consensus. Often this is because they confuse consensus with everyone getting everything they want, but even when it is just finding something everyone can support, it’s not always necessary to get to that point.

    Sometimes, it really would be OK for someone to make a decision without everyone’s blessing. Maybe it’s not what we all want, but at least we all get to move on. It’s not always a bad thing.

    In a virtual team meeting, when decisions come up, take a vote and if someone can’t register their vote because they aren’t paying attention, or because they’ve gotten away from their desk, they forfeit their vote. Set the expectation and let people know ahead of time that come decision-making time, we’ll be going around the virtual table and you get one chance to weigh in.

  5. Make Meeting Recordings Available as an Alternative to Attending

    Most online tools allow for recording of a session. Particularly for meetings which are for information sharing as opposed to decision making, a recording of a meeting made available to those who couldn’t attend may be an option. Not only does it provide flexibility for those who get the information via the recording, but it also may mean fewer attendees in the actual meeting which can mean less discussion, technical problems, etc.

    A major caveat with this, of course, is requiring that someone spend the time watching a recording when they may have been unable to attend because they were busy in another meeting. Sounds like a quick way to create 16-hour work days.

Clearly, not all of these will work or even make sense for every meeting. But of this we can be certain: Virtual team environments are not going away, none of us really multitasks like we think we can, and we can only stay focused for so long – which is shorter than the duration of most of our meetings. 

Our infatuation with the idea that we are capable of multitasking and therefore remain constructive participants in lengthy meetings isn’t serving anyone well. We are better off acknowledging our real, physical limitations and working to change our organizational meeting cultures to make better use of everyone’s time.

As I say when I teach, if what you’re doing is working well, then for heaven’s sake keep doing it. But if the tempo of your online meetings is handicapped with attendees who won’t, can’t, or don’t know how to stay as engaged as they need to be, try doing things a little differently. What do you have to lose? Probably not their attention.

I’d love to hear from you if you try (or have tried) any of these approaches and how effective they are for you. And if you have other approaches, I’d love to hear about them, as well.

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Virtual Meeting Challenges: Stop Fighting the Multitaskers

During the Q and A following my recent webinar, Offsite and On Board, most questions pertained to challenges around people multitasking during conference calls and online meetings. Evidence of people multitasking during virtual meetings includes the tap-tap-tap of keyboarding, silence when asking for input from someone, and the steady drip of “Could you repeat that please?” from attendees.

I have good news and bad news to consider before exploring possible strategies for dealing with the multitaskers.

First, the good news: Those of you who struggle with virtual team members multitasking during conference calls and online meetings can stop worrying about it because… they aren’t.

That’s right. There is no multitasking going on in any of our brains. We simply are not wired to do it. There is ample research to prove this, yet we continue to delude ourselves into thinking we can intellectually process two things at once. 

There are, however, two things we can do that make us think we are multitasking:

First, we can switch back and forth really fast between two things that occupy the executive system of our brain’s frontal lobe, the part that handles decision making, reasoning, and other complex intellectual activities. (By the way, this part of our brain doesn’t fully mature until into the 20s.) Even though we can do this with terrific speed, it’s relatively inefficient, and the fact remains that we cannot process two things at once using that part of the brain.

Second, we can do two things at once using two different parts of the brain. We can use the frontal lobe for decision making or planning while simultaneously doing something routine which will be handled by the basal ganglia in the temporal lobe. For example, I can stir a pot of spaghetti sauce while helping my fifth grader with his math homework because stirring spaghetti sauce is using my basal ganglia while the front part of my brain will be burning a hole through my eyelids trying to understand fifth grade math.

This inability to multitask is not a constraint unique to the intellectually less gifted. Even really bright people like students at MIT have been shown to be incapable of it. They think they can and will tell you just how well they do it. But they don’t. They can’t. Relieved?

Now the bad news: While there are different types of attention and a variety of opinions about the actual number of minutes that humans can remain focused, most sources indicate that the average sustained attention span of an adult is about 40 minutes. Think about it. Your typical meeting agenda has about as much likelihood of sustaining people’s attention for the duration of the meeting as I do of being drafted into the NHL. 

Many even suggest that our attention spans may have an inverse relationship with the pervasiveness of technology in our daily lives. As our digital world becomes increasingly one of instantaneous gratification, we have less and less need to practice the intellectual exercise of focusing. Given all the technology most of us are surrounded with, it seems logical that in a conference call or online meeting in which there is nothing to actually look at, 40 minutes might even be a considerable stretch.

Given that our capability of being great multitaskers is a fantasy and that we have attention spans far shorter than what we regularly demand of ourselves, I’d suggest a couple of questions before exploring ways to deal with the problems multitasking cause: 

“Who are we kidding?! Why do we expect people to stay focused during a virtual meeting for more than 20 minutes?”

I can’t think about this anymore so that’s it for now. Next time I’ll explore some strategies that may yield better attention and active participation from virtual meeting participants. 

Until then, to all ye who fight the mighty multitaskers with stunted attention spans, I say: Be free from the frustration of having to compete for the attention of multitaskers and quit asking the impossible.

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