How to Streamline Your Business to Increase Your Productivity

It’s easy to get caught in the daily whirlwind, especially when you have a long list of tasks and boatloads of firefighting to do.

However, if left unchecked, all these, on top of sticking to manual processes, can bog you and your employees down — leading to inefficient workflows, low productivity, and even cost you money.

The solution? Streamline your business processes to save time and resources, manage your workload better, and ensure your business operates optimally.

While there is no one-size-fits-all formula to achieve efficient business processes and workflows, there are tried and true ways to help you pull this off — which we’ll cover in this guide.

1. Leverage cloud-based apps

Completing tasks efficiently can be challenging and almost impossible when your critical tools are only accessible from one physical location.

After all, this kind of setup means your team would need to travel to access your tools. They could also overlook tasks easily because they couldn’t do them immediately.

This can seriously impact your team’s and company’s overall productivity and add to your already full workload.

This is where cloud-based software comes in handy.

With a cloud-based solution, your team can access your tools anytime and anywhere using compatible devices with an internet connection.

For instance, Record360’s equipment inspection software can streamline processes through digital workflows and forms.

The company provides paperless equipment inspection forms users can easily access and process through its cloud-based software.

This allows teams to conduct equipment inspections seamlessly, whether at a project site, at a different branch, or anywhere else, as long as they are connected to the internet.

With the cloud-based tool, your team won’t need to travel to your nearest branch or office, obtain paper forms to perform the inspections, and send the document after completing it.

Users can accomplish all these steps from the app, and everything gets stored in the cloud for managers and other authorized users to access with ease.

Cloud-based apps can streamline business processes by allowing quick and easy access to tools anywhere and eliminating the long back and forth of manual, non-cloud tools. This makes your workflows more efficient while saving you work hours and resources.

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2. Use task management tools

An inefficient task management process can be one of the biggest killers of productivity.

Without proper task management, you and your teams would be hard-pressed to collaborate and communicate efficiently and, in turn, streamline your business processes.

Team project management tools provide a solution through functionalities that expedite your team communication, collaboration, and task management processes.

These features include showing task updates and progress in real time, interactive board views, and other collaboration tools.

Project team management tool ClickUp, for instance, has document, goals, and task modules on the mobile and browser app. This allows your team to plan and organize tasks while collaborating seamlessly.

Some of the software’s other key features include docs, goals, calendars, reminders, and an inbox that make assigning, tracking, and managing tasks more efficient.

The software offers proprietary and customizable features, allowing you to adopt multiple views and functionalities for specific teams and functions.

A reliable project and task management software helps eliminate the friction and resource-draining aspects of using separate tools. It also provides features that simplify tasks, speeding up your workflows and increasing productivity.

3. Automate where you can

Adopting automation into your systems is one of the fastest ways to improve your business’s process efficiency while making your team’s lives a lot easier.

For instance, if your customer support team spends hours each week gathering contact details from potential leads and answering basic client queries, automate critical parts of the process by using Artificial Intelligence or AI chatbot software.

Chatbot platform ActiveChat, for example, combines AI natural language understanding with decision-tree chatbots to automate your customer communications.

The software lets you create a flexible, no-code chatbot you can easily implement on various platforms such as Facebook messenger, your website, SMS, email, and other communication channels.

You can use the software’s native website chat to begin client conversations and continue them on channels your customers use. It can automatically match users across your channels, allowing you to provide a seamless multi-channel customer service experience.

A powerful AI chatbot can take the load off your customer service team by handling the majority of repetitive, less complicated tasks.

With this, your team can automate tedious, time-consuming customer service jobs and focus on more complex tasks instead. This can speed up workflows and issue resolution, improving your customer service quality and increasing productivity.

4. Minimize meetings

While meetings are critical for planning, collaboration, and other activities, they’re not always the most effective option. Some meetings are better off as quick phone calls, chats, and emails to help you optimize precious work hours.

Assess where you can replace in-person meetings with an email, team chat, or video conference. This way, you won’t need to wait around until everyone’s schedule is clear to hold the meeting, no one has to travel anywhere, and everyone can use the time saved for work.

Use free video conferencing tools such as Google Meet as an alternative to holding in-person meetings. You can also use it to meet with your remote team members regularly with little to no expense.

Google Meet offers a simple interface, and all you need to use it is a Google account. You can schedule meetings on your Google calendar, and it auto-generates a Meet room link included in your meeting invitation.

The tool offers meeting/conferencing features and tools, including a whiteboard, in-call chat, auto-captions, and a screen sharing option for seamless presentations and other uses.

Make your meetings more productive by using a reliable tool. This also streamlines communicating with your team members and prevents them from eating into your productive hours while minimizing the strain of long meetings.

The bottomline to achieving an efficient and productive business

While getting your business to work like clockwork with no kinks can require a bit of elbow grease and investing in the right tools, it doesn’t have to be rocket science.

Iron out what your business needs and use tools that work best to streamline your workflows, automate your tedious tasks, and increase your company’s overall efficiency and productivity.

Establishing the right strategies on top of adopting the best-fitting tools into your systems and tech stack also helps you streamline your processes while saving time, cutting costs, and giving you more room to focus on growing business.

Take the first steps into streamlining your business processes to boost your business efficiency and productivity, starting with the tips in this guide.

Beware The Inadvertent Project Saboteur!

Organizational change is a tricky business. There is seemingly endless ambition to progress change initiatives, but sadly practicalities like time and budget always appear to be at a premium. Having competent people on the team who are capable of getting on and getting things done is crucial.  Yet even with competent people on the team, one perennial challenge is the coordination of work. Even if there were world-class people on the team, if they are working in silos and there’s a lack of communication then there would be a problem.

I find it fascinating to watch how quickly Formula 1 pit stops take place (if you’ve never seen this, there are plenty of examples on YouTube). It’s clear that pit stops have been refined, rehearsed, and improved to the point where tires can be changed in just a couple of seconds. There are clear tasks, everyone knows when the car is coming in, and everyone knows what they are doing and how what they are doing fits in with the broader aim (the broader aim, presumably, being to win the race!). I can’t begin to imagine how complicated the technology and engineering that takes place in formula 1 is, yet still this process has been refined so that it consistently works.

Of course, our lives in projects are significantly different to Formula 1. We don’t have the complexity of tires and engines, but we do have complexity of stakeholders and existing processes. We won’t be changing tires, but we may well be making changes to a customer facing process, IT system, organizational unit, etc. Our work isn’t perhaps as repeatable as a Formula 1 pit stop, yet the coordination of work is crucial.  Imagine if a pit stop took place without the usual choreography, and if one of the engineers had to ask “umm, am I changing the front left or the front right tire…. Oh hang on, I thought you were on the back tires?” It would be far less slick, and possibly even hazardous as the car might come in before it was expected…

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The same is true in projects. A lack of communication causes blockages and problems: I suspect this revelation will come as a surprise to precisely nobody. One of the reasons that many agile teams prefer to be collocated (when possible) and have regular catch-ups is to ensure that people’s work can be synchronized.  Yet in just about every project context, one pattern to look out for is the Inadvertent Project Saboteur!

Sabotage With Good Intentions

It might sound strange to say an inadvertent project saboteur, so let me explain.  Sometimes situations occur where time is tight. There is a perception that there isn’t time to have meetings or discussions to synchronize work. Communication probably still happens, but it’s only the things that are ‘on fire’ that are discussed. Lots of email gets sent, but because everyone is so busy fighting fires, only some of those emails get read. How many of us can honestly say that we are always completely on top of our email?

A perfectly competent team member sees what they perceive as a gap. Perhaps they suspect some requirements or stories had been missed, or there’s some functionality that they are sure is required. It’s something that seems small, let’s say it is something like letting an online customer opt to receive a paper copy of their car (auto) insurance certificate. There’s no time to discuss it, no time to document it, no time to trace it back to the objectives/aim… we’re firmly in the province of “JDI” (“Just Do It”). So, with the best of intentions the person does it. They mean to email people and tell them, really they do, but they work late and they forget.

Then there’s feedback from testers. Something isn’t working as expected, there’s a sudden realization that an unexpected change was made. People spend time searching back through tickets and story cards to try and work out why, time is burned, nothing is found. By a chance conversation, the person responsible for the change says “err.. yeah, actually that was me”. Questions are raised over whether this was a good idea, but the sponsor is pressing to ‘ship it’, so it’s swept under the carpet.

All of a sudden the internal training team expresses significant concerns. The application they are training staff on seems different in a few key areas, not just this (seemingly small one), but others too. Again time is burned (and everyone is working even longer hours now) trying to find out why. It seems a bunch of things have been changed and even worse, customers start to complain, the new ‘feature’ works, but none of the supporting processes are there. They can request a printed copy of their insurance certificate, but nobody has built a process to actually send it to them. Urgent work is done to put this in place: then somebody asks “..how does this affect the business case? Wasn’t it built on a zero-paper and entirely online model? Doesn’t this change the entire business model and proposition?”

These are all crazy examples, of course, I’m sure such a plethora of miscommunications like this wouldn’t happen in the real world.  Yet, what this demonstrates is the danger that can emerge when communication subsides and when people get out of sync with why the change is being initiated in the first place.  Competent people with the best intentions will do their best, yet doing something that they genuinely think is best may have impacts elsewhere that they hadn’t envisaged. A Formula 1 engineer might well think that the car’s paint needs touching up, I can’t imagine they’d ever unilaterally decide to get out the paint can during a pit stop! To do so could affect the driver’s final position in the race. There is a parallel with badly considered insular decisions that are made on projects.

Of course, I’m absolutely not arguing for strict separation of duty and huge documents and arduous governance, nor am I arguing for centralized ‘command and control’. What is needed, however, is sufficient communication so that everyone in the team knows enough about what each team member is doing, along with the ability to easily communicate if things change. Cutting down communication at times of stress will often lead to a lack of synchronization, ironically leading to increasing problems and more stress!  We should all be on the lookout for inadvertent project saboteurs and should avoid falling into the trap of becoming one ourselves.

Have you ever seen (or been) an inadvertent project saboteur? What are your views? I’d love to keep the conversation going. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Strategic Adaptability in the Face of Change

In late 2019/early 2020, the Division of Environmental Health Science and Practice (DEHSP) developed a comprehensive strategic plan that outlined the key focus areas, objectives, and milestones the division planned to accomplish by 2024. The strategic plan was being disseminated right as the world was grappling with the uncertainty, fear, and panic of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many other businesses and organizations, almost overnight we faced a monumental disruption to the ways we had to think about our division’s priorities and resources. While we had an intricately crafted and thoroughly researched strategic plan, we soon learned we would need to be flexible and adapt to the unexpected changes resulting from COVID-19.

Within any project, business, or organization, the imperative of crafting detailed roadmaps is clear: you need them to achieve your goals and to prioritize resources while maximizing efficiency. Without a clear definition of how you will achieve success or get from point A to point B, projects or organizations can face delays, cost overruns, or an end result that isn’t desired.
Following the completion of the division’s strategic plan, the concept of lift points was developed by division leaders to identify the work that would successfully lift the reach and impact of the entire division. The lift point concept provided leaders with a framework for implementing the strategic plan in a way that attempted to remove silos across the division, highlighted the cross-cutting nature of division-wide priorities, and further prioritized strategic plan objectives through 2024. With CDC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, DEHSP staff availability became limited, resources were stretched to capacity, and the strategic plan implementation efforts were temporarily halted. After six months of dedicating resources almost exclusively to the pandemic response, leadership revisited the lift points with a renewed understanding of the importance of establishing and implementing clear-cut, focused priorities. We recognized the value in strategically directing division resources to strengthen programming and maximize efficiencies. Division leaders chose to re-focus their energy on clarifying and addressing the lift points, despite the challenging resource constraints.

Charting the Path Forward: Establishing Lift Points

To determine the right mix of lift points, division leadership needed to prioritize the most impactful, yet attainable, areas of the division—in project management terms, essentially the initiatives with the best return on investment. With the COVID-19 response in full swing, we saw that our staff, resources, and time were limited even more than usual. We knew we would need to work towards goals that would create the largest impact for the entire division, without burning out our staff.
To do this, we needed the right perspectives at the virtual table—strategic thinkers who could push the group to think bigger, policy and communications leaders who know how to communicate impact, scientists and subject matter experts to drive evidence-based practice, and programmatic leaders who could lead the effort to operationalize the lift points. This group was spearheaded by my colleague, Amy Cordero, M.P.A., Associate Director for Policy, who was instrumental in shaping the entire lift point concept and creating buy-in among senior leadership and division staff members. With this group together, we set some clear boundaries on how to determine the lift points:

  • Focused: We limited the final number of lift points to six—any more than this would spread our resources too thin.
  • Cross-cutting: We prioritized identifying cross-cutting initiatives that could break down silos across the division and create more collaborative, innovative solutions.
  • High leverage: We focused our attention on the areas of the division that had the means to significantly move the entire division forward.
  • Attainable: We considered division resources (e.g., time, funding, and personnel) as we prioritized lift points.
  • Policy impact: We reviewed the policy landscape and considered the political will and interest for division priorities.\

Through a series of prioritization working sessions, the group finalized the six lift points and their corresponding goals:

  • Develop a division-wide data modernization strategic action plan by December 2021
  • Finalize a DEHSP science agenda by March 2022
  • Develop a division-wide prioritized partnership plan by December 2021
  • Publish an Environmental Health Best Practices Playbook by June 2023
  • Demonstrate Controlling Childhood Asthma and Reducing Emergencies (CCARE) impact and clinical integration by August 2024
  • Implement the DEHSP brand by September 2021

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Mission Coordination Team Implementation

Now that we had the lift points identified, the next step was to map out how we would achieve them, especially given the additional constraints brought on by COVID. We developed Mission Coordination Teams (MCTs), which we clearly distinguished from the idea of a traditional workgroup. At CDC, workgroups are groups of people who are responsible for conducting all key activities related to a specific project or goal. MCTs, on the other hand, have a different scope than workgroups because members serve as the project managers/coordinators of the lift points. These teams would help determine the strategy and process of the work, establish timelines and action plans, coordinate staff members across the division to conduct key activities, and monitor progress toward the lift point goals. We decided the MCTs would be cross-cutting, collaborative groups with representatives from all four DEHSP branches (Emergency Management, Radiation, and Chemical Branch; Asthma and Community Health Branch; Lead Poisoning Prevention and Environmental Health Tracking Branch; Water, Food, and Environmental Health Services Branch) and the Office of the Director (OD).

To facilitate the work of the MCTs, we focused on several different, soon-to-be ‘old school’ Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) process groups and knowledge areas. The PMBOK sets standard terminology and guidelines for project management. In particular, we leaned on concepts around:

  • Integration Management: Allocating resources to support the MCTs; outsourcing contractor support to provide project management, strategy, and facilitation support to all MCTs
  • Scope Management: Defining the purpose, audience, and scope of the MCTs; identifying the requirements and process for generating final MCT deliverables
  • Resource Management: Defining roles within MCTs and leveraging a diverse portfolio of skills; ensuring each team consists of members with different strengths, capabilities, and backgrounds (e.g., scientific SMEs, strategists, project managers, etc.)

Maintaining Momentum

After mapping out the approach for the lift points and MCTs, we quickly realized the lift point process would be cyclical in nature; once outcomes for an individual lift point have been achieved, the lift point can be ‘retired’ as it becomes institutionalized as standard operations. Then, additional lift points can be identified. Division leaders will identify future potential lift point areas by several different factors, including political, social, and cultural forces; changes in funding; interest from partners; and internal momentum. During the ‘lift point staging’ process, division leaders will identify the vision, strategy, and goals related to a particular program or effort. Once a program or topic area has gone through lift point staging, and depending on the outcome of the staging process, an MCT may be established to make progress toward the lift point goals.

The only way to determine if individual lift point goals have been successfully completed is to build a robust evaluation framework. For an organization like CDC, the importance of demonstrating impact to external audiences cannot be emphasized enough. In fact, the division is actively working with the Program Performance and Evaluation Office to develop a strategic performance management framework (e.g., processes, measures, tools, reporting cadence, etc.) for all MCTs. This performance management framework will help ensure all stakeholders are working toward well-defined, achievable goals and that successful practices are institutionalized to achieve the greatest impact.

A New Way of Organizational Thinking

While our implementation of these practices remains a work in progress, as all good management processes necessarily are, and as we continue to respond to a changing landscape, there are a few noteworthy observations we can already identify. As I look back on the past year and a half, I realize how much progress we’ve made, and appreciate how much important work remains. I’m reminded of a quote by John F. Kennedy: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” As we were developing our comprehensive strategic plan, the sun was shining, and we were looking towards the next four years for the division. When COVID-19 completely upended our initial deployment of the strategic plan, leadership chose to adapt our initial implementation of the lift points and reprioritize our efforts, despite our resource challenges. That experience has fundamentally shaped the way we think here at DEHSP. Given this shift in division leaders’ mindsets, and the lessons we learned from remaining agile and adapting our strategic planning framework, this will undoubtedly become the norm moving forward. The DEHSP lift point staging process and implementation of MCTs has helped the division shape its strategic priorities and better articulate how all the different offices and branches fit into the overarching goals of the division. It will be extremely interesting to see how the division continues to adapt as our experiences advance and more lessons are learned. Isn’t that the whole point of agility—to continue to practice it in an increasingly dynamic world?

The Key to Performance Improvement: Candid Performance Assessment

Performance assessment is a critical part of optimal performance. When done well it brings intelligence, effective processes, mindfulness, and self-awareness to bear to sustain and continuously improve performance. Unfortunately, performance assessment is often not done well.

Recent discussions about performance reviews make me ask:

  • Why do people have such a tough time admitting that they screwed up?
  • Where does the tendency to hide mistakes come from?
  • What benefit does it provide? What does it cost?
  • Wouldn’t mindfully saying something like
    “The situation is terrible, we misread the conditions, we could have acted differently. We’ll learn from this and do better next time. Meanwhile we will do our best to manage the current situation.” be better?

Candor – Open and Honest
Candor is being open and honest. It implies that bad news not be filtered out.

This article is about the need to value candor to better enable performance assessment and the improvement it can bring. How do we overcome the habits of blaming, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and fear of rejection and punishment that get in the way of owning up to performance shortfalls?

Costs and Benefits
In project management, it is ultimately damaging to hide the reality of a troubled project that is behind schedule and likely to go over budget.

The truth will come out at some point and the failure to own up to the problem in the first place will make the reaction to the truth that much more intense. Further, ignoring the bad news will make it less likely that effective action will be taken to remediate the situation.

On a broader level – across multiple projects, in organizations, and in the political realm – leaders lose confidence in followers and followers lose confidence in leaders when they have the sense that the people they rely on are not able to see and unwilling to say what is happening and how it happened.

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Case Study: Performance Assessment Avoidance
Matt is the knowledgeable and competent manager of a team responsible for a program at one of his firm’s clients. The program has a multi-million-dollar annual budget with a mix of capital projects, smaller projects, and operational activities. As program manager Matt reports to the client’s leadership team. He is responsible for supervising and coordinating with members of the client organization, as well as contractors and vendors providing services to the client. The client and Matt’s firm consider themselves as business partners rather than client and contractor, though in the end there is a client/vendor relationship.

Matt is volatile and highly defensive when he perceives that he or his work is being criticized. He reacts with anger and is often rude to members of the leadership team.

The leadership team and Matt are focused on concrete current issues and have not addressed processes such as performance assessment, project and operational administration, and communication and relationship management.

The board is generally satisfied with Matt’s performance and his firm’s services, particularly regarding management of large capital projects and vendor/contractor relations. They have no interest in replacing Matt or the firm.

However, there are some unaddressed complaints. The complaints are voiced among the members of the board but have not been directly communicated to Matt, largely because every time an issue comes up there is an explosion of defensiveness. Matt addresses each issue, but they repeat. There is neither effective job tracking nor performance assessment. Leadership team members are not comfortable confronting Matt.

The Root Causes
On a personal level, the habits of blaming, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and fear of rejection are causes of the tendency to hide performance that does not meet expectations. These are rooted in psychological and cultural conditioning. On an organizational level, blaming, punishing, lack of sensitivity, and poor performance management processes combine to reinforce the personal issues.

Taken together these causes create a culture that hinders candid performance assessment, and as a result will be hard-pressed to perform optimally.

Sensitivity
Because root causes are clearly tied to personal psychology, many work environments are less likely to address them directly. Where mindfulness practices and awareness of emotional intelligence are part of an organization’s culture, the likelihood of effective assessment is higher.

Though, there is always a great need for sensitivity; to be gentle but not so gentle that you get no results.

Dimensions of Assessment

  • There are three dimensions when it comes to candid performance assessment
  • Working to overcome personal resistance
  • Team and organizational maturity
  • Tools and techniques.

Working on oneself begins with the recognition and acceptance that there is resistance and that its cause is internal and personal. With that recognition and acceptance there can be investigation and remediation.

To achieve recognition requires gentle but firm confrontation. Ideally, one recognizes their own resistance and confronts it. If that doesn’t happen and the team’s performance is being affected, then the team or management must confront the issue.

Raising or confronting the issue may or may not result in the desired personal self-awareness. Without the individual’s recognition and acceptance there is unlikely to be remediation. In fact, confrontation can lead to greater outbursts and active and passive resistance.

Culture
The team and organizational culture play significant roles. Cultural maturity sets the stage for effective handling of the performance appraisal issue.

Where the culture is immature, as in the case study, confrontation is difficult and more likely to face pushback from team members.

A mature culture doesn’t necessarily have formal processes and procedures, it recognizes and acts upon the power of appraisal and has a clear commitment to continuous improvement and optimal performance. A mature culture recognizes the way emotional intelligence, mindful awareness, and relationships intersect with more concrete measurable aspects of performance such as schedule and budget compliance.

Procedures, Tools, and Techniques
Formal procedures are a means to maturity, not a sign of it. When the procedures are followed naturally as an integral part of everyday life, then there is maturity. There are many immature cultures with assessment procedures that guide managers and staff through relatively useless annual reviews and project retrospectives.

Tools and techniques support processes and procedures. For example, a tool like Perflo enables frequent micro assessments. Frequent assessments enable early warning of performance issues and remind everyone that assessment is a regular and natural part of life.

Action
Awareness training and facilitation are needed to initiate and reinforce awareness and cultural change. In your scope of control, which my include only you, make the effort to value and promote candor. Cultivate an attitude of continuous improvement. Stop the blaming. Reframe failures and errors as learning experiences. Learn from them so you don’t repeat them.

Using an Agile Waterfall hybrid to manage a major Collaborative Computational Project

Collaborative Computational Project Number 4 (CCP4) in Protein Crystallography was set up in 1979 to support collaboration between researchers working in structural biology, and to assemble a comprehensive collection of software to satisfy the computational requirements of relevant UK groups.

Demand gave rise to the CCP4 program suite, now distributed to academic and commercial users worldwide.

Taking a lead role

Scientist Eugene Krissinel from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Scientific Computing Department has taken on the core lead of project managing the vast volumes of collaborative software development, and its distribution for CCP4. In leading the core team he says, “I am responsible for CCP4 infrastructure, software distribution, and everything which goes from CCP4 to users, including some program development.”

CCP4 is a well-known and respected open collaboration with a very good reputation and large numbers of users – upward of 25,000 worldwide.

The project now has a mature agile management style with an Executive Committee to drive targets, and two working groups to advise on software requirements and user needs.

Challenges of the project

 “The Software suite grew very fast and now the size and complexity is comparable to Linux distribution, and is managed by only a handful of people.”  Eugene Krissinel.

One of the first things that Eugene needed to address when he joined the CCP4 team in 2009 was the size issue, as the volume of software to be distributed was more than was manageable by the resources and technology of the time. The software suite had reached such a size that the ways of managing software were purely technical – from archiving, compilation, testing, to packaging and distribution – and this was taking all the effort from the core team. It was a considerable issue so his first goal was to suggest a more efficient way of handling the software.

The team adopted technologies used by Linux maintainers, which enabled them to develop automatic software management pipelines and introduce hot updates, so CCP4 updates just like an operating system.

This is something Eugene designed, and it took about 3 years to implement to a stage where it was an established modus operandi for the team.  ”It took quite a sizeable development of new graphical installers, updaters and new pipelines,” he said.  “Those pipelines are big because we have about 10 million lines of code.”

With such a huge infrastructure, there is a lot to manage, and a way forward was to automate certain processes. Eugene explains; “Regression testing of our software is an ongoing problem but now it’s completely automatic and happens every night.”

There is a great deal of communication and collaboration to achieve the mutual goal of the project. The CCP4 team links research community and developers, making sure that users’ feedback reaches program authors. It is a considerable size of code that needs distributing so this takes a lot of time and effort.

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Management style

Eugene uses an agile style of management to organise the project. He used a coarse-grained plan, and tracking progress of tasks within projects is achieved through regular group meetings. The usable outputs are discussed with stakeholders, allowing the team to have a continuous stream of deliverables.

Eugene highlights the importance of good working relationships and mutual respect. His management style is to give team members assignments that play to their strengths as well as matching the project’s needs. The team has a diverse set of skills and interests and together they successfully deal with a wide variety of tasks; from scientific problems to very technical problems or mundane jobs to very creative jobs.

Benefits in the project are identified by monitoring updates for the software. If liked by the research community they will use the software and this will be shown in download stats and start-up stats for the programs. This is collected only from academic users (not industrial users) and the information is completely anonymous.

The theory is that if academics are happy, then industry will listen. The more industry uses, the more sustainable the funding is for the project. The number of industrial licences is a crucial indicator for financial health. Currently CCP4 sells on average 140 industry licences per year, and that number is growing.

Feedback is key and the CCP4 team has always been very strong on communicating with the community directly. They support the CCP4 ‘bulletin board’, a mailing list of about 8000 subscribers who post between 20 – 100 messages each day. They also have a dedicated line for submitting bug reports, which are frequent and dealt with quickly. “If this line is completely silent I would personally worry because there are always bugs. If nobody is talking to us about them or thinks we can’t be reached, that becomes a big problem,” said Eugene.

The project is a great example of agile management because it’s focused on using regular direct discussion between the development team and the users, with 2 week continuous delivery slots. There is also a strong emphasis on stakeholder communication and reciprocal respect within the industry.

CCP4’s success can be attributed in part to generous industry support. Its roots are in drug research and its industrial customers are all big pharma companies. By purchasing software licences, these companies provide important funding to ensure the continuity of the project. Other funding comes from competitive grants, and STFC’s Scientific Computing Department provides the overall setup and home for the project.

Improvement going forward

Despite its success, the team is always trying to improve.  Going forward Eugene would like to see an easier process for supporting short-term activities.

A little bit more autonomy in financial terms would benefit the project processes, especially in terms of purchasing hardware. This can be slowed by the many channels necessary to make purchases.

This project, like so many others, has been impacted by COVID-19 as less spending has occurred and the funds don’t carry over to the following financial year automatically.

Rising to challenges is something Eugene and his colleagues take in their stride, though. CCP4 is hugely successful – something that is borne out by its longevity, its ever-evolving software, its growing community of users and high demand from industry. Importantly, CCP-4 software was used to solve the first COVID-19 virus structures. Taking the agile approach for managing the project has given it a further advantage of increasing the dialogue bandwidth between the development team and the users.