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Author: Liz Pearce

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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Top 10 Pitfalls to Avoid when Implementing Project Management Software

Top10Pitfalls1Recently at LiquidPlanner, we took some time to conduct in-depth interviews with nearly 40 of our most active customers. We asked a lot of questions and heard some great success stories. One thing quickly became clear: the method you use to roll out a new tool can make or break its adoption and success on a team.

So what made these teams successful? They each avoided most (or all) of the pitfalls below when introducing project management software to their teams.

Pitfall #10.
Export data from your old system and re-import it directly into the new one. Expect everything to magically improve.

Instead. Clean house (project-wise and process-wise) during implementation. Get rid of old project data you don’t need. Delete unnecessary steps from your project template. Make sure you have the best possible processes in place for your team. Now is the time to make a change if change is needed.

Pitfall #9
Instill a fear of “messing things up” in your team members.

Instead. Encourage trial-and-error learning. Let people click around and see what the tool can do. If they hit a roadblock, they can ask for help or browse the support section. If you’re a little jittery, set up a sandbox area for this express purpose. Don’t wait until everyone has free time to attend a training session before giving them access – it will only slow you down.

Pitfall #8.
Don’t bother loading any project data into the system before you ask for feedback.

Instead. Make sure there’s no “blank page” problem during team intros. In other words, people should see project data that they relate to when they first log in. It sets them up to be able to visualize using the tool every day for their own work, and to ask the most important questions about features they need or want.

Pitfall #7.
Stick to the generic training materials and help guides when getting people up to speed.

Instead. Conduct user trainings on specifically how you want your team to use the software. You’re the one who knows them – and probably the software—best. Use that knowledge to help team members figure out the shortest path from A to Z (i.e., getting all of the necessary information into and out of the tool as quickly as possible.)

Pitfall #6.
Trust no one.

Instead. Promote values of openness, transparency, communication, and most important of all, ownership. If your project team is your “family,” your project software is your “home.” In a healthy family, you communicate, share the same dinner table, pick up after yourself, and leave generous numbers of post-it notes for each other. The same holds true for your project team. The more you collaborate, update, and respect each other’s priorities, the more effective and efficient you’ll be.

Pitfall #5.
Rely on the software to solve your resource management problems.

Instead. Accept that offline process for resource management and allocation must still take place. At its core, project management is a social problem, not a technical one. In a team with shared resources, the tool can’t make those decisions for you. However, a great project management tool can facilitate discussions and inform your decisions about priorities and work assignments.

Pitfall #4.
Keep using all your other systems in the same way you always did.

Instead. Leverage the full feature set that you’re paying for to eliminate (or reduce) the need to spend time in other tools. For example, if your project management tool includes a micro-blogging feature, try to encourage your team to use that in lieu of email. You can get rid of your old time tracking system and use the one in your project management software. Ditto for document sharing, wikis, bug trackers, client extranets, and more. Besides cutting costs, it will keep team members engaged in the tool, ensuring the most accurate project information at any given time.

Pitfall #3.
Find one way of using your project management software and stick with it.

Instead. Think of the rollout as an “Agile implementation” that gets better over time. This is especially true if you’re moving from a more lightweight tool like Basecamp or Excel to a purpose-built project management application. Experiment with structure and process, then see if you can identify areas for optimization.

Pitfall #2.
Copy and paste data from your project management software into your Microsoft Word team meeting agenda.

Instead. Display your project software on a projector in meetings so everyone’s on the same page. Not only does it reinforce the idea that your shared workspace is the central place to go for project information, but it allows you to make updates and decisions in real time.

Pitfall #1.
Let your team members make updates “if they feel like it.”

Instead. Hold each person accountable for making frequent updates to their tasks. Let’s face it – your business only moves forward when projects get done. Would you accept having out of date financial information? I don’t think so. Team productivity is directly proportionate to revenue opportunities. Make sure everyone understands that having reliable project data is critical to running the business. At the same time, offer support and guidance on the fastest and easiest way to make updates.

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Liz Pearce is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing for LiquidPlanner, a provider of online project management and collaboration. Email her at [email protected] with your questions.