Tag: Facilitation

PMTimes_Dec6_2022

The Power of Active Listening

“ It is only in listening that one learns.” J. Krishnamurti

Communicating is central to optimal performance. Listening is a powerful capability for success. It is the most critical part of communicating. As a project manager, or in any role, in any relationship, listening both shows respect for others and informs you, so you are better able to learn and respond effectively. Listening enables a meeting of the minds.

 

Hearing, Listening, and Active Listening

Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive. A sound is received by the ears and registers in the brain.

Listening is active. It exercises focus, self awareness, and social intelligence. It is giving attention to (“I am listening to what you are saying”), making an effort to hear (“I am listening for a signal”), or it can mean to act on what someone says (“The kids/my boss/the staff just don’t listen”). Not listening is ignoring or not making the effort to hear and understand.

 

In the context of relationships, leadership, and management, we have changed the meaning of to listen from “give one’s attention to a sound”[1] to give attention to the communication experience. We refer to this as active listening. active listening is not just about sound. It is paying attention to the full experience of the sounds, words being spoken (or written), tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and  “vibe” or emotional state.   Active listening involves questioning to validate understanding. And it includes listening to one’s inner voice and feelings.

 

Meeting of the Minds

Communication is an act of sharing. It consists of giving, listening, and understanding. It is most effective when it achieves communion – the sharing of detailed and thorough thoughts and feelings to reach a meeting of the minds – mutual; understanding. Active listening promotes mutual understanding.

Some may question whether the sharing of thoughts and, especially, feelings has a place in organizations and business relationships. This kind of sharing does not mean sharing one’s deepest feelings when that is inappropriate. But with detailed and thorough knowledge, there can be the mutual understanding that leads to better decisions and healthier relationships.

Mutual understanding transforms the state of mind of the participants. It implies that the people involved meet one another with open mindedness and the intention to understand one another’s meaning. With that kind of understanding, team members are motivated to act, to follow through on agreements, or to know that the there is disagreement.

 

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A Scenario

I recently requested information from a colleague. I was clear that obtaining the information was important to me and he made it clear that while he was aware of that, he was not going to share it.

We had a meeting of the minds. It was an agreement to disagree.

 

My sense was that while he was listening to me and I to him, we were not thorough in our sharing. We had listened to one another’s words. I had listened to my feelings, and they gave me the sense that he had not shared the underlying reason for his position.

I was satisfied that my sense of a hidden agenda was not driven by my disappointment but from an interpretation of his tone and unwillingness to address his motivation. Unless he shares it, I can only guess at his thinking. While we had a meeting of the minds regarding the content, we did not meet on a deeper, more meaningful level.

You might ask, “What does meet on a more meaningful level have to do with project management and performance?” The answer is that when there is unwillingness to honestly share, relationships suffer. When relationships suffer, performance suffers.

 

Listening is a Challenge

“And for most of us, listening is one of the most difficult things to do. It is a great art, far greater than any other art.”  J. Krishnamurti Excerpt from What Are You Looking For?

Listening promotes healthy relationships and optimal performance. But it is a challenge. It requires the intention to actively listen, and the mindful self-awareness to know if you are paying attention or are distracted by our own thoughts and feelings; to assess your patience, and focus.

Are you busily planning what to say next or caught up in judging yourself or others? Are you verifying that the other party has understood what you meant and that you accurately understood what they meant?

For example, I have a habit interrupting others because I think I have understood their meaning before they have finished talking. Most of the time I do understand, and often they are going on and on repeating the same thing. But my interrupting is driven by impatience. It violates one of the most important parts of listening, respecting others’ need to express themselves.

 

Questions as a Way Of Listening

Working with my impatience (habits are hard to change), I am learning to step back and let the other party speak his piece. If I feel it is useful, I interrupt with a question. For example, “What I think you are saying is … . Do I have that right?” Questioning in this way shows that you are interested in what is being said and gives the other party an opportunity to see if you do understand and to correct or further describe their content. Questioning can also be a way of making sure the other party is paying attention and that there is successful communication.

 

What if the Other Party Isn’t Listening

Communication seeks mutual understanding. Listening is an individual act. When one party is not listening, communication is limited, mutual understanding is not achieved.

In the midst of conversation, there are ways to manage the situation to get the other party to listen. One way is to stop talking. It gets the other party’s attention and once you have it you can continue. Questioning is another useful way. In this context, you can say “I’d like to make sure I am being clear. Would you mind telling me what you think I’m saying?” Questioning engages the other and lets you know if they were listening and whether they ‘got’ what you were trying to get across. It transforms the conversation from a lecture to a dialogue.

 

Seek to Improve

In the long run there is a need for training in communication skills.

Start with yourself. Assess your skills, particularly your listening skills, and make a commitment to get them to be as sharp and effective as possible.

Then do what you can to promote effective communication in your team and other relationships. You can raise awareness by implementing a team training or engaging a coach or facilitator.

 

[1] Oxford Languages
PMTimes_Aug2_2022

When is a Decision Final?

This article addresses the question, when can a decision no longer be changed?

Everything we do results from a conscious or unconscious decision. When it comes to anything important, it is better to make firm conscious decisions.

In projects, changing decisions about objectives, requirements, designs, staffing, and vendor selection is disruptive and costly. Not changing them may also be disruptive and costly.

 

When is a Decision Final?

A decision is final when it can no longer be changed. It can no longer be changed when the decision has been completely implemented or when authority, rules, and regulations say the decision cannot be changed.

We can’t revoke a decision to build a house once the house is built. It is physically impossible (in the absence of time travel) to go back and not build it. While it is physically possible to change a decision that has been deemed final by authority, there are political ramifications.

 

Models, Beliefs, and Relationships

Models and beliefs about sticking to decisions influence the decision-making process. Relationships among stakeholders are affected. Some expect that once a decision has been made the decision-making ends. They believe that going back to reassess a decision is a sign of poor decision making – being sloppy, wishy-washy or indecisive.

Consider the relationship between executives, clients, requirements analysts, and implementers.

  • Clients and executives love decisiveness and hate ‘analysis paralysis’ – they want to ‘get on with the work’
  • Clients often change their minds
  • Requirements analysts are charged with avoiding the need for changes and communicating changes to the implementers
  • Implementers are often ‘annoyed’ by the changes, thinking that the clients are indecisive and oblivious of the impact of their changes and the analysts are not doing a good enough job when eliciting requirements
  • Analysts feel that they are not given sufficient time and do not have sufficient access to decision makers.

We value both firm decisions and the flexibility to change them.

 

Expect Change

Change is inevitable. Consider a conscious decision-making process:

“1) Define values, goals, objectives and specifications underlying the issue or question

2) Define the decision making and target environments

3) Agree upon decision criteria

4) Identify solution options

5) Analyze and compare solution options vis-à-vis the decision criteria

6) Decide

7) Implement the decision

8) Monitor and adjust

9) Reflect on the process for lessons learned.”[1]

We see that step seven, Implement the decision, is not the finish line. We acknowledge the need for adjusting decisions whenever conditions change.

 

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Decision Making and Change Management

This question of when a decision is final links decision making and project change management.

The heart of change management is deciding whether to change previously made decisions.

A change management process decides whether to allow change to earlier, frozen, decisions. Changes are costly. Changing a requirements or design decision before it is implemented costs far less than changing it afterwards. Changing a decision that has been baked into a contract can require legal proceedings. Changing a screen design in a website less costly than changing the design of a physical product, like a bridge or building once construction is started.

 

A Middle Way

Enable and minimize change.

We want to be flexible, open to changing our minds, and we want to avoid wasting time and effort caused by having to unnecessarily revisit decisions.

Let’s look at a case. A design team decided on the use of a certain type of handheld device. Based on that decision a procurement process was started. A couple of weeks into the procurement process for the devices, the design team changed its mind. They decided that a handheld device would not work. They changed the design to use work stations instead. This wasted the time and effort of the procurement team and the vendors they reached out to for bids.

Was the change warranted? Yes, it was recognized that use of handheld devices made operational costs excessive.

Could the design change have been avoided? Maybe. If the team avoided unnecessary changes by spending more time and effective effort to better understand the decision factors – objectives, work environment, criteria – using checklists, and making sure people speak up with ideas, comments and criticisms.

 

Causes

In this case, the design team became aware that they had not consider the operational issue of the loss, damage, and ‘shrinkage’ of the devices when a member spoke up to bring the operational issue to light.

Why hadn’t he/she/they spoken up earlier? Maybe the idea just dawned, or out of fear to speak up during the design sessions. Either way, it was a good thing the issue was raised and that the design team and leadership accepted the change, even though it disrupted schedules and wasted effort. The up front loss was miniscule compared to the expenses saved.

Imagine if design team leadership didn’t support the change, saying that it was too late or too politically dangerous to question the earlier decision. Not only would there have been an inferior outcome, but some members of the design team would also be demotivated, thinking that their leadership was unprofessional and cowardly.

If this kind of thing happened frequently it would be a sign that the design team’s process needed some improvement.

 

Action

Adapt an approach that dynamically balances enabling and avoiding changes.

Any project decision can be changed until the decision has been completely implemented. Minds change when information regarding decision factors change. While you may never be perfect, make sure your decision-making process addresses all the factors that influence the decision. Take the time to get it as right as possible the first time.

Consider how often stakeholders change their mind after having decided, and how many decisions end up being poor ones.

Do you need to devote more time and focused effort to the decision process? Do you need more formal facilitation, brainstorming, checklists, and input from experts regarding objectives, decision criteria, environmental considerations, and options?

[1] https://www.projecttimes.com/articles/the-power-of-decision-criteria/
PMTimes_July13_2022

The Courage to Try Something Old – Part 1: Facilitation

We know that it often takes courage to try something new. But what about trying something old? Sometimes it takes courage to do the basics, things that we know work, but for a variety of reasons are deemed to take too long or seem too “old school.” Often the old ways are not welcome. To be sure, the old ways do not always add value. But when they do, it can take courage to convince the organization that it’s worth spending the time. The first one of these oldies but goodies that I will address is about facilitating requirements meetings. Even the concept of a meeting seems a bit old school, and when you add on the discipline needed to successfully facilitate, it can seem insurmountable.

The glorious thing about requirement meetings is that rather than interviewing many stakeholders separately, which is time-consuming, we can get the stakeholders together. It’s a chance to get issues discussed, questions answered, and direction set. But stakeholders may come unprepared or with hidden agendas. There are usually different personalities and communication styles which cause different types of disruption. And it takes courage to take the time to successfully facilitate. It takes courage to keep the meeting focused. Here are three tips that will provide you courage and increase the likelihood of success.

 

Preparation. No matter how experienced we are, no matter how many meetings we’ve facilitated, no matter how many disruptive stakeholders we’ve encountered, we face new challenges each time we facilitate a requirements session. We can’t eliminate the disruptions, but we can minimize their effect. Thoughtful preparation with the appropriate stakeholders will help us go into each requirements event with confidence. Minimally, we need enough preparation to communicate the following before the meeting:

• Objective. This is an action, stated as a verb. Examples include: to resolve issue(s), develop a process describing a current or future state, review the results of an iteration/phase, or project.
• Desired outcome. This is a thing, stated as a noun. Examples include: decisions, issues, parking lot topics, requirement models and lists, story maps, flows and other diagrams, user stories, action items, follow-up items, and responsibilities, to name a few.
• Attendees, prep work needed of each, and expectations for their contributions during the meeting.
• Topics to be covered, who owns the topic, and approximate time to be spent on each.
• Tools and techniques to be used and how, when, and by whom.

 

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Meeting agreements (ground rules, protocols). The ability to keep focus during the session requires the use of meeting agreements, or ground rules. Throughout the years we have tried to soften the use of the term “ground rule,” maybe because “rule” seems so inflexible. Regardless, these agreements help keep us grounded. Getting participants to establish and then follow them, though, is tricky but necessary—necessary because disruptive participants can make everyone miserable. If we call out the disruptor, we risk breaking the safe environment and having the other participants shut down. If we do nothing, we will not successfully meet our objectives. There is no one right way to handle disruption. What has worked best for me is to anticipate disruption, include it in the prep work, and hold pre-meetings with those most likely to be disruptive. And the use of a parking lot can be one of the many agreements established.

 

Quick decision are not decisions. The final thought is that decisions cannot always be made during the meeting. There are a myriad of reasons why trying to curtail discussions and move forward will result in frustration and future changes. We can’t demand that decisions be during the meeting. But we can have a tentative agreement, and then it’s up to us to check in with reluctant participants as needed.
Sound a bit old school? Yes, of course. These are techniques that have been around a very long time. But they work.

We tried getting rid of meetings, and that didn’t work. We tried getting rid of meeting agreements. Chaos. We tried getting quick decisions, only to be blindsided and saddled with rework later. Sometimes the old is not the most popular, but it is the best approach, even if it takes courage to get people on board.

 

[i] I use the terms requirements meetings, sessions, events, and workshops synonymously.
[ii] I once suggested the use of a parking lot and some of the attendees didn’t know that it was a list of tangential topics that would be handled outside of the meeting or at a future one. They thought that we were actually going to meet in the company’s parking lot!
PMTimes_June27_2022

Best of PMTimes: 5 Secrets To 5% Increased Profit On Your Next Project

All resources matter on the project.

 

Without all resources working cohesively and effectively together, it can become nearly impossible to effectively and successfully deliver on the project. But beyond that – looking to the revenue level and the profitability on the project… everything affects it, but close management and oversight of it comes down to the project manager. No one entity on the project has the insight, access to info, and overall project knowledge from that standpoint to effectively manage how healthy the project financials are.

Also, not only can the project manager help keep the project stay on track financially, they can also help increase project revenue and profitability through effective financial management, scope management, and customer and team management. Many things do affect all of this – well beyond my list below, I know – but for me it starts with regularly performing these five tasks… my secrets to keeping project revenues high and project profits hopefully higher than expected. Let’s discuss…

Discuss Financials Weekly With The Project Team.

One of the best ways to get the team aligned on managing their own time charging well and accurately on the project is to just let them know it’s very important to you and to the bottom line of the project. Many don’t realize that and they’re just trying to account – usually at the end of the week – for all their time. They know they put in 65 hours on various projects and they are tired and throwing hours down on a time sheet that means very little to them other than a task that is due Friday afternoon or Monday morning. It’s not daily tracking as it should be – in reality it’s Friday afternoon guess work when they would rather be doing anything else.

So, discuss the project financials at each weekly team meeting. Make sure they know how much time charging is expected of them for that week and the following week from your resource forecast and ensure that the two match up. I realize this one action may not add to the profitability of the project very much – but it can keep it from being the rollercoaster ride it often is and can definitely keep the project from unexpectedly going 50% over budget leaving the project manager wondering what went so horribly wrong.

Limit PM Travel.

Believe it or not, not all project customers see PM’s as a vital expense on the project. I had one project client in Texas who just didn’t see the need or value from Day One. Even my lead tech – who was mostly working onsite with the client – said “how can you not like Brad, you don’t even know him?” I got to the bottom of this PM disdain on their part and they were mostly concerned about budget and questioned the need for my $150 per hour project hit. So I immediately looked for ways to manage from afar. I eliminated my travel and reduced meetings to conference and video calls and they loved it. Best of all it added to the profitability of the project without affecting my management of the project or our performance level on the project.

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Limit Team Travel.

Beyond the PM travel, look for ways to limit team travel as well. If the plan calls for onsite quarterly meetings with the customer re-think that. Does the customer care if you do it with a video call, thus saving thousands and adding to the profitability of the project? I realize that some travel can’t be avoided and the customer will need it to maintain a level of confidence and overall happiness in most cases. But it can be kept in check – I’ve worked too many projects where it seemed we were traveling way too often and making the rest of our “productive time” and effort on the project suffer when we could be effectively delivering on the next phase instead of wasting important dollars on what has already been accomplished by traveling just to review it.

 

Manage The Project Scope.

Scope management may be the best overall way to help ensure project profitability. Too many projects go by with extra work added without the necessary change orders in place to cover the work, add the necessary revenue for that work and keep the profitability of the project in place. Those change orders can add nicely to the project profits – I once added $100k in revenue with a high profit margin by selling the need for an onsite business analyst to the project client. The customer loved it, project revenue skyrocketed and profitability took a nice jump as well. Look for ways to do things like this when managing scope.

Tighten Resource Management And Forecasting.

Making your team aware, watching scope, limiting travel, etc. are all great ideas. But the real profitability boost comes from you – the project manager – effectively, efficiently and relentlessly forecasting resources accurately throughout the project engagement. Don’t just come up with a resource forecast and let it sit. Revisit it weekly. Maybe you no longer need an expensive business analyst during weeks 32 and 33 on the the project. Discuss removing the resource from the project for those 80 hours – thus possibly saving the project as much as $12,000 during that downtime for the resource. If you are working on a time and materials basis with the client it may not help revenue and profitability much. But if you are charging more on a fixed price or deliverable basis, your profits could increase dramatically

Summary/Call For Input

You’re the project manager. No one else can keep costs on track and profitability high like you can. Never just phone it in when managing anything that affects the project $$ bottom line. Even one hour a week spent analyzing project financials and re-forecasting the project financials and resource usage can reap huge dividends in the long run in terms of profitability on the project.

Readers – what are your thoughts? Do you agree with this list? What are your secrets and tricks for keeping project revenue and profitability in check and adding to it throughout the project? What frustrates you the most with revenue planning and profitability on the projects you manage?

PMTimes_June1_2022

Design Thinking and Project Management

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology that was created by Stanford University professor Tim Brown and IDEO’s CEO, an innovation agency where they wanted to improve the service to their customers, from an empathy approach. Every time, the method proposed in Design Thinking is being used all over the world, especially in organizations that want to solve problems, focused on clients, based on ideas, proposals, and experimentation, above all.

This dynamic occurs even when the ideal of the final product or deliverable is not yet clear, but if the problem is clear and the work of experimentation with the final customer is enhanced. This way of solving problems has stages, but without a doubt its basis is the focus on the needs of the client, empathizing, observing, evaluating, creating prototypes (experimentation), testing, getting feedback, and improving the product.

This process allows sustainable growth and is based on teams from multiple disciplines, to achieve products or services, technically feasible, that meet the expected and within the resources available.

The process.

Through the different design thinking phases, we can use a series of technics and tools that allow us to develop new products and services, from understanding problems or needs to prototype, business model, evaluating alternatives, client feedback, etc. It is important to punctuate that this is an iterative process.

PMTimes_June1_2022

Figure 1. Design Thinking Steps

The stages are briefly described for comprehension purposes; however, I will focus on the “Empathize” stage and its tools to improve the lifting of the client’s need, their desires, knowing their “pain” and how to plan possible solutions. Independent of the project approach: predictive, agile, or hybrid.

  1. Empathize:

This stage is perhaps the most relevant, because it focuses on understanding as a team and individually, the desires and incentives that the client has, beyond the need itself. Here is much of the success of this method, as it drives you to know customers or end-users deeply. Considering, of course, the “hard” data, figures, fixed strategy, business plan, which are important because they are the “context” of the problem, but it is not the primary objective of empathizing.

This empathy is achieved by engaging with end-users or customers. Getting your point of view and ideally living it. Several tools and techniques of this stage are those that I will deepen in this article.

  1. Define:

In the first stage, we should be able to obtain the main problems posed by the user/client with the necessary depth. It is then necessary to evaluate the information obtained and detail the one that contributes to a greater extent to really know the users.  Here are defined those hypotheses that present greater opportunities to generate value to the client when solved.

  1. Ideate:

It is now up to elaborate ideas for the problems selected from the previous phase, the focus is to look for a range of solutions, there is no “bad idea”, the more alternatives the better for the process. Brainstorming is crucial at this stage, the best one for the team and its characteristics are sought, considering of course the users/customers. As the name suggests, in this phase the solution ideas are worked on, and collaboration and participation of all team members are encouraged.

  1. Prototype:

As the name implies, here ideas are transformed into prototypes. It pursues further experimentation by the team and customers. Prototypes can be made with common materials such as paper, cardboard, Lego blocks that reflect functions of the final product. Or in the case of digital prototypes, app demo.

  1. Testing:

Here the tests with the prototypes made are carried out and the users/client are asked for their feedback regarding the experimentation with the prototypes. This stage allows to identify improvements, failures, deficiencies, good points that must be maintained, etc. Ideal to maintain as a team a receptive look at the interaction of users with the prototype, answer inquiries and documents.

  1. Evaluate:

Here it is necessary to analyze the errors, and observations obtained from the previous stage, looking for the points of improvement of the product. This can lead us to go back to previous stages with the improved products and experiment again until we get to the closest thing to the product desirable by the user/customer.

 

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Design Thinking Tools.

Independent of the project approach: predictive, agile, or hybrid. Especially for user “requirements” or “stories”, the following tools or techniques add a lot of value in complementing and fully identifying the customer’s desires.

  • Empathy Map: this is one of the most useful and applicable tools to get to know our customers/users in depth. It allows delivering a global vision of the aspects of the “human being” behind the client.

It is a canvas like the one presented below, which can of course be complemented with the areas that as a team we determine valuable for our process, this gives us benefits such as:

    • Improve the understanding of our customers or users.
    • Have a dashboard view of customer needs
    • Land expectations and document them.
    • The visual saves a thousand words.
    • Develop the products considering the map obtained.
    • Enhance the lifting of requirements and enrich user stories.
    • Allows you to engage in the client’s “pain” and experience their concerns.

PMTimes_June1_2022

Figure 2. Empathy Map
  • Job Shadowing or Observation: focuses on observation, supported by an interview with stakeholders or users who carry out the activities of the business flow that is part of the client’s environment. Example: A shoe factory would mean observing (not just talking or interviewing) all those roles that are part of the required business flow. In IT or Technological industries, for example, it is common for metrics such as:
    • A number of interactions carried out by users in the system or application they use as part of the process to be surveyed.
    • Failures or points of failure of the system or application.
    • Execution process times of the functionalities of the system or application.
    • Of course, everything is related to the customer experience.

Benefits: observing that it goes beyond the story, the daily operation of the organization (in-situ), allows to know, document, and see the critical points of the flow and what can be improved. There is no better feedback than from the first source, experiencing and evidencing the activities that will be the focus of intervention of our project, allows us in addition to documenting the current flow, to know the “pains” of the user (client) and their expectations.

  • Actors Map: it is a graphic representation, very simple, that allows concentrating in the same plane, the interactions, degree of involvement, and the relationships of the actors that relate to our main client. All this is in the context of the problems that are being tried to develop.

There are several ways to represent this map, the example described below is circular, which is segmented into three parts depending on the areas of the customer relationship, segmentation is according to our need.

PMTimes_June1_2022

 

Figure 2. Actors Map
Source: http://tynerblain.com/blog/2007/03/13/visualize-stakeholder-analysis/

Another important point is that the gaze of actors is also equivalent to those interested in the project such as people or institutions, private or public.

They participate in this diagram:

  • Direct actors: they interact directly with our client (in the center). We can associate them with greater or lesser influence.
  • Main actors: they are related and interact with our main client; they have lower interaction, and you don’t have so much control over them.
  • Secondary actors: they are related and interact with our main client, in a distant way, but may or may not have influence and relevance. They are unpredictable.

 

Design Thinking in Project Management

In projects, independent of the approach, we can innovate, with tools or techniques that are not necessarily the traditional or usual ones for our projects. Precisely in times where the dynamism of the market and the behavior of our customers, we must have the ability as a team and organization, of course, to adapt and use those techniques that facilitate our day to day and allow us to get to know our users or customers who are finally the main focus of our activity.

In this context, we can use this tool to define:

  • Customer needs
  • The product features
  • The project scope
  • Design business process
  • The IT architecture
  • Requirements analysis

This approach helps us to identify stakeholders, improve the process to select projects, reduce conflicts, innovate in a changing world, solve complex problems, and we can work to satisfy needs and increase value to the business.