Learn from it, then leave it.

Last week is behind you. Are you working on your status report? Good. Now is a good time to pause and reflect, what lessons did you learn?

Depending on the template you use for your project status, you are probably answering questions like:

What happened as planned?   What did not go as planned?   Why or why not?

The real learning comes from that last question. Why did things go as planned? This represents the actions you want to carry forward. Why didn’t things go as planned? Not the excuses, what are the real causes? For example, did a task go uncompleted because your subject matter expert was ill?

Great, never allow your subject matter expert (SME) to be sick ever again. That is NOT reasonable. If your SME is the only one who can complete a particular activity, then you have a risk. And if you are not able to cross-train or to have more than one resource with this expertise, then the time will come when work will not go as planned.

Now is the perfect opportunity to capture lessons learned. In fact, I once worked with a project auditor who required a lessons learned section in all project status templates. Her point was that if we do not capture the lessons as we go, we will forget them. And she was right.

The end of each day, each week, each month is a perfect time to reflect. So far, we have been discussing your project status report. Now is the time to take an honest look, not just at your project, but at yourself as well. What are the personal and professional lessons that you wish to carry forward? And just as important, what do you need to leave behind?

Happy is the person who knows what to remember of the past, what to enjoy in the present, and what to plan for in the future.
– Arnold H. Glasow

Several years ago, I worked for a manager who was very Theory X. He did not seem to believe in our ability to behave as professionals. He would go through our files and folders on a regular basis to ensure that we were not hiding anything from him.

He was a big believer in the post error walk through. It did not matter how small the error, you needed to resolve it and then you needed to sit in his office and go through what you did step-by-step. He always made sure to ask you multiple times exactly what your mistake was. I always walked away feeling like he had rolled up a newspaper and smacked me on the nose with it saying, “Bad software developer, bad software developer!”

Lessons learned are not just about what to repeat and what to improve. Lessons learned are also about letting go of the things that do not serve you. Not every mistake needs to be examined and discussed and turned into an opportunity for growth. Some things just need to be released. That one time error that your overworked and overtired team member made? Let it go. Or take the lesson to stop over allocating your resources.

Move forward with the valuable lessons and leave the rest in the past.

No Luck Required

“If we always helped one another, no one would need luck.” – Sophocles

‘Good luck.’

How often has someone said this to you? How often have you said it to others?
Of course, you mean well.

Sometimes saying ‘Good luck,’ it is an automatic polite response. Not unlike, ‘Have a nice day.’
You might say it to someone who is going through a difficult situation, especially when you do not know how to help that person. It might be your parting phrase to someone as you walk away from them.

There is nothing wrong with wishing someone ‘Good luck.’ We probably all have times in our lives when we would accept all of the good luck in the world.

When you are saying ‘Good luck,’ to a team member who is having a difficult time with an assignment; or to a team member who has just told you they are running late with their assignment, you have an obligation as the project manager and leader to help.

It is your job to help move obstacles out of the way for your team member.
When a team member tells you about a challenge, they do not necessarily need luck.
They need you to act like a leader. To listen to them discuss the challenge, to brainstorm with them, to enlist others to assist them.

When you have a team member facing difficulties and you say ‘Good luck,’ and then walk away,
it is as-if you are washing your hands of them and their difficult situation.

Do not just wish your team members luck, work with them to change their luck.
Instead of wishing this vague thing called luck, bring them help. That is part of your responsibility to them.
It does not mean you solve every problem; it does not relieve them of their responsibility.

Stop wishing your team members ‘Good luck’ and make sure that you bring them good help.

Managing in a virtual world: How PMs can effectively manage remote teams

The demand for more flexible working arrangements, the rise of freelancing and the advent of virtual collaboration technology has made remote working and virtual teams commonplace in today’s workplace.

This infographic will explore how project managers can effectively manage both remote and on-site team members to achieve project success.

Managing Virtual Teams

Brandeis University M.S. in Project and Program Management Online

“Once Upon A Time” – Not just for kids anymore

By Lori Lee

Project managers have a big job. They have people to coordinate, resources to manage, a project that has to be taken from concept to completion, and they are the responsible party for seeing that it’s done correctly and on time. This is no small task.

There is an old folktale about a man who walks up to three men who are working on a brick wall. He approaches the first and asks, “What are you doing?” The man, clearly annoyed, says, “Uh, I’m laying bricks.” The man approaches the second brick layer and tries again. “What are you doing?” he queries. “We are building something out of bricks. I know I’m supposed to lay these bricks right to that mark on the ground.” And he pointed to a mark in the dirt a few yards away. The curious man approached the third worker and he asked the same question. This time the third worker looked up and said with great excitement, “Oh, we are building the most fabulous cathedral! This section is an inner wall.” At that point the two men he had spoken to earlier began arguing because one of the bricks near the end was sticking too far out. The third man stepped in and said, “Don’t worry about that brick. This is an inside wall and that brick will be covered by a corner piece.”

This story illustrates the difference that can be made in both the personal buy-in to a project as well as the ability to know what to focus on in completing the project, when those involved in the project clearly see the vision of what they are building and why.

One of the largest challenges in managing people is often creating the energy and vision for moving forward. In other words, creating clarity of purpose and enthusiasm toward the project is the challenge, and the right type of communication is the answer. When something -that vision-can be communicated in a way that brings people together in purpose and momentum, then the magic happens.

So, how to do this? I propose there is one tool that will ALWAYS work. It’s a tool that when used correctly will connect with everyone on your team, be they kinesthetic learners, auditory learners, or visual learners. Story is the genre that appeals, grabs attention, and gives a format for bringing up emotion, understanding, and remembering. It’s the tool that teaches, creates clarity in the minds of your team, and sets a vision everyone can see clearly when you share it in story.

Like the third man above who had been given the information needed to understand what the builders were creating, a story that creates that vision for your team will add excitement, purpose and understanding when they come to that last brick that’s sticking out and are deciding whether to spend valuable time and resources worrying about it. Three quick questions for finding your vision story:

  1. What will this project look like when it’s done?
  2. What purpose will it serve?
  3. How will the completion of this project benefit the company and the members of the team?

With the answers to these three questions in mind, create a vision story that illustrates what you are creating, why you are creating it, and what the benefits of a job well done will be. Then make sure this vision story is shared with everyone, repeatedly. Share this vision story at the beginning of the project to get everyone on the same page, but share this vision story at the beginning of each team meeting as well.

A couple tips in building your vision story:

  1. Make it personal – pull the members of your team into your story so they can see themselves in the tale.
  2. Try a-day-in-the-life approach and recreate what things will look like when the project has been successfully created. This will not work for all projects, but see if it applies to yours.
  3. Look to other examples, even from other businesses or projects, to show examples you want to emulate.

The best managers are always looking for new tools to take their teams to the next level. While stories are ancient tools, their reintroduction into the professional world has gained tremendous momentum because of the simple power they hold and their broad reach. Take the time and gauge the difference it makes. Before you know it you’ll be the leader everyone looks to for clarity and inspiration.

A special thank you to Lori Lee for teaching us about the value of using stories to create a powerful vision for your project.

Lori is a professional writer and researcher who found a love and intense interest in the personal narrative. She has a Master’s degree in Folklore, and a desire to use the great things she has learned, and continues to learn, about story to add value and to assist others with the crazy cool power that comes with understanding this phenomenal tool in our personal lives and in business. She is the author of 4 books and 100+ magazine and newspaper articles. She has presented her research on story at universities across the Western United States. Lori is the producer and host of the Love Your Story podcast.

Contact Lori at [email protected] or (801) 663-6964.

Isn’t it Time YOU Took a Break?

You have so much to do, and you cannot figure out the solution to one specific problem. You do not deserve a break until you know how to resolve the problem. You will not take a break until you know that you are going to make your deadline.

Guess what? This might be the exact time for you to take a break. Indulge in a few cat videos or clips of puppies engaging in mischief. Research has shown that participants performed tasks better AFTER looking at pictures of baby animals.

Taking a break will actually help to ensure that you are working on the right priorities. Taking a break does not take you off course it actually keeps you on track.

Don’t trust me trust science.

University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:

“…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!” (www.open.buffer.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work)

If you are worried that taking a break is preventing you from problem-solving, the opposite is true. When you take a break, your mind is not entirely idle. Some of your brain activity increases when you daydream and when you let your mind wander. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley states that while we do need to focus, we also need to enter a state called the diffuse mode. Focusing blocks us from this mode. Relaxing allows us to get into this mode and it is while in the diffuse mode your subconscious mind chips away at the problem that you are trying to solve. (www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/08/inquiring-minds-barbara-oakley-learning-neuroscience)

If this is true for you, then it is true for your team. When you see your team struggling with a complicated issue, encourage them to take a break. When you see a team member stressing out over a challenging problem, tell him or her to take a short walk around the building. You are not teaching people to walk away when the going gets tough. You are showing them that they can dig in and respond to the tough issues with a stronger and more focused mind. Make taking breaks part of your team discipline. Teach your team members that the way to real productivity and sharp thinking is to give your brain a rest.

You would not keep a high-performance engine running at top speed for extended periods of time. If you did it would burn out. And before it burned out it would gradually become slower and less efficient. Your mind and the minds of those around you are high-performance engines, don’t burn them out.

Take a break.

Your Project Will Change

You led your team through a very thorough requirements gathering process. There was brainstorming and walk-throughs of the product functionality. Multiple groups contributed and reviewed the results. Additional analysis and review went into deciding which of the requirements would really make it into the scope. There was plenty of intelligent debate. And now finally, the project scope document has been signed.

Everything has been agreed upon and there will be no changes. Right? Wrong! Your project will change. You might begin to think, “What does she know? She wasn’t there. She did not see all of the work that went into agreeing upon our project scope.” You are right. I have not been following you. Still, your project will change.

What you have done is helped to ensure that the changes that occur either stem from unforeseeable circumstances or are truly useful enhancements or result from changes in the organization or political climate. Your project will change.

Even with the best planning possible, random things can occur. Previously stable business partner can go out of business and cause you to seek out new suppliers. A certain type of material may not hold up to testing. A new regulation may be imposed on your industry. A product may not function as designed. Testing might reveal a flaw. Sometimes unforeseen events bring about change.

As the project moves along, your team members will develop a better understanding of the work that is being performed. Your customers will develop a better understanding of what they really need. New ideas will evolve. You are not going to tell all parties to stop thinking, to stop coming up with new ways to make your product or service even better. You want the good ideas to keep flowing. If a change to the project is valuable enough, then a change request should be approved and the change should be incorporated. Your project will change.

To your surprise, your project sponsor who seemed happy and stable in her position announces that she has accepted a position outside your organization. Her replacement supports your project, but has different ideas about the project objectives and about what you and your team should really be creating.

Say it with me now, “My project will change.”

And it is going to be all right. The amazing work you did with your requirements and your scope document was well worth the effort. By spending time gathering requirements and agreeing upon scope, you have created a good baseline for the changes that will come. You and your team will recognize change. You will be able to have intelligent conversations about what these changes mean to your project.

Let the changes come, you are ready for them.

Please Elaborate…. Progessively

“Why do the Project Charter and the Project Scope Statement contain some of the same information?”

“We just provided that information, isn’t this just repetitive? Are we wasting time?”

Excellent questions.

When you are creating some of your project management deliverables, you might feel like you are repeating yourself. You are. But you also are not. Confused? Let’s consider progressive elaboration.

As you start your project, you do not know what you do not know. You start off with some basic information. For example,

• The purpose of this project is to improve our customer experience by providing customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Because you know your organization and your industry, you might already have some strong ideas about what the above really means and how it will really be accomplished. It is also possible that your organization is looking to shake things up and do things differently. How do you know?

Ask questions of course! Question your project sponsor and your key stakeholders about their plans for customer service. Take the purpose statement that was used to create a business case or a project proposal and you elaborate on it. Perhaps as you are writing the charter you find out more:

• The purpose of this project is to improve our customer experience by providing customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to existing account holders only.

Now you know more, you have elaborated on your previous understanding. This is progressive elaboration at work.  And this might be enough to write a Project Charter to announce the project and for the project to be granted a project manager and to be assigned a priority.

Next you and your team discuss the best way to provide customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

• You can hire extra customer service representatives and open up the phone lines to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
• You can set up a service where customers can text their questions and they receive a response also via text.
• You can set up an online customer service question forum where customers can post their questions and receive a response within an agreed turn around time.
• You can give customers access to a specific Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) area for after hours questions.
• You can assign each customer a customer service concierge with a specific hotline they can call or text or email 24/7

All of the above could meet the stated purpose of providing customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to existing account holders only. Which approach or approaches will you use?

With additional discussion with your sponsor and your stakeholders, you learn that they had absolutely no intention of providing a customer concierge service. They also do not like the idea of paying for extra customer service representatives. But they do not think that a text message-based service is good enough. After discussion, it becomes apparent that no matter what approach is used, human beings will be required to provide the service. In order to reduce the costs of adding staff or paying overtime to current staff, it is decided that the solution will involve a text message based solution, combined with a FAQ area and an online customer service question forum. The constraint you receive is that each shift will have no more than two representatives working.

Progressive elaboration has taken you from an initial idea or statement about providing customer service to a definition of who receives this extra level of customer service. Now you are defining how.

As you have progressed through the project you have elaborated on what you are really doing. Each formal deliverable that discusses the purpose of the project contains additional information. Once the scope statement is signed off, you expect fewer changes. Otherwise, you might find yourself contending with scope creep.  An excellent discussion for another day.

What to do When a Team Member Needs to Rant

Mary Carol had never seen Jim quite so upset before. He came into her office, pulled out a chair and just launched into an all out rant about his colleague Joyce. Jim was really dumping some negativity. Mary Carol had no idea that Jim had these hard feelings toward Joyce. Jim was really upset. At first, Mary Carol felt like she had been attacked. But she quickly realized that Jim needed someone to listen to him.

As Jim continued to rant, Mary Carol felt torn. She did not necessarily agree with all of the negative comments he was making about Joyce. Both Jim and Joyce worked on her team. Each of them was a strong team member. To listen to Jim complain about Joyce almost felt disloyal. Almost. Then Mary Carol realized that in this moment, what she could do was to provide a safe place for Jim to express his feelings. It was better for Jim to rant to her, than to Joyce or to others about Joyce.

Still as Jim continued to rant, Mary Carol wondered what she should do differently. She wanted to allow Jim to get these hard feelings off of his chest. At the same time she did NOT want Jim to allow these hard feelings to set the tone for the rest of his day or to damage his professional relationship with Joyce. As Jim continued, Mary Carol came up with a plan.

After a few minutes Mary Carol, held up her hand, “Jim, could you stop for just one moment?”

Jim replied, “I know, I know, I should not come into your office and speak poorly about another team member.”

“That is not it at all,” replied Mary Carol. “You may consider this a safe space and a safe conversation. But let’s work to make this time even more productive. Try this with me. I am going to give you ten more minutes to rant about Joyce. Say whatever you need to say. At the end of those ten minutes you need to switch topics. You need to then list the good qualities that you see in Joyce and the positive aspects of working with her. After you do that, you are going to set an action plan. Maybe that action plan is to go take a break and calm down. Maybe that action plan is to find a way to discuss your concerns with Joyce. Or maybe that plan is to spend some more time considering just why it is you are so upset with her.”

Jim listened to what Mary Carol said and then abruptly replied, “Great, can I go back to ranting now?” Mary Carol nodded while thinking, “Well so much for THAT approach.” To her pleasant surprise, Jim did not even need ten more minutes to rant. All of a sudden he took a deep breath and switched gears. He began to discuss what a good job Joyce does in analyzing difficult problems. He recalled the time that he lost his place in an important executive presentation and she stepped in and joined him, as-if that had always been the plan. He listed some other positive qualities that Joyce exhibited and then he stood up and headed for the door.

As he opened the door he turned to Mary Carol and said, “My action plan is to use this approach with my friends, family and colleagues whenever they need to go on a rant.

Like Mary Carol, you too can allow your team members to rant. Consider using her four step ‘ranting plan’.
  1. Advise your team member that this is a safe space and that as long as they can rant without making you feel attacked, ranting to you is allowed.
  2. Agree on a ranting time limit. Mary Carol and Jim agreed upon ten minutes.
  3. After the ranting time limit is up, switch to finding positive aspects of the person or situation that triggered the initial rant.
  4. Next have your team member set an action plan. What steps will he or she take to channel this rant into some type of productive action?
Ranting, just another project management service you provide to your team.

Take YOUR Team Through Loss

The team had just suffered a crushing blow. They had been competing for a specific contract for months. They wrote an amazing response to the RFP (request for proposal) and made it into the top five and then into the top two. When their potential new customers asked them to build a prototype, they rose to the challenge and provided a high-quality prototype and held an exceptional demonstration session. And yet, they lost the contract.

The reason they were given was that the other team came up with some additional requirements that were not requested in the initial RFP.

The competing team provided an upgraded version of the prototype.

As Mary Carol gathered the team around to discuss the loss, strong feelings began to surface. Some team members were angry and felt that the process had been unfair. Others were mad at themselves and others for not expanding the requirements. One person started to say, “I told you so.” Mary Carol let them vent. Eventually they realized that she was just sitting there watching them. The team fell silent and stared at her expectantly. They did not know if she was angry, if she would chastise them, they waited.

Finally she spoke. “I have an assignment for all of you and it is due in two hours.” The quality control lead interrupted her by saying, “I know, you want us to come back with our lessons learned, our what we could have done to prevent this.” “There will be time for that later.” Mary Carol replied. “What I want you to do right now is go back to your desks and by yourselves consider what it means to be resilient. Meet me back here in two hours with your thoughts on resiliency.”

Two hours later the team came back together. While one or two were still puzzled by this unconventional assignment. Most of them embraced it, many of them bringing quotes to help them express their understanding of resilience. Like the assignment, some of these quotes were unconventional:

Sometimes Grace comes in the form of a punch in the face.”
Mary Elder

And

Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.
Muhammad Ali

Other quotes were more traditional:

A good half of the art of living is resilience.
Alain de Botton

And

Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit .”
Bernard Williams

It’s not the winning that teaches you how to be resilient. It’s the setback. It’s the loss.
Beth Brook

And

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill

The lead, initially so quick to assume they would be working on their lessons learned was one of the first to see the point of this assignment. The point was to transition them away from a place of loss and upset and to begin to move forward with a sense of strength and ability. It was also Mary Carol’s way of letting them know that she was not angry with them, she did not think they had done a poor job, they were just bested by the competition. Now it was time for them to move forward.

It is easy and fun to celebrate success. It is just as important to grow from defeat.

How to Help YOUR Team Make a Decision

Joe listened to his team discuss the merits of two approaches to solve the problem they were facing. As he listened it became more and more obvious that they were going to need help making a decision. He knew both approaches were good, he knew all of the team was qualified to weigh in and he knew he did not need to make the decision.

Team members had spent quite a bit of time researching and brainstorming both solutions. One of their highest priority customers had discovered a glitch in their software. The good news was that it was not impacting any other customers. The bad news was that for some reason it was causing problems for this customer every day. They were now completing some of their work manually. Joe’s organization was paying for two temporary workers to perform the manual processing. The customer definitely appreciated this assistance, but was anxious for a permanent solution to be implemented.

Now the team had devised two possible solutions. Each solution was equally likely to be successful, neither solution would disrupt current processing and both took about the same amount of time and effort. Despite the similarities between the solutions, there was enough of a difference in how they approached the problem that team members did not agree on which was best.

Based on this information Joe stepped in and told the team that they would vote. And if a clear majority emerged, that approach would be the solution that they would use. The team agreed.

Joe then asked the team to take a thirty-minute break. During this time he considered how to move forward after the vote. He did not want to move forward with an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Joe created a simple voting ballot. He labeled the approaches ‘Solution A’ and ‘Solution B’. He did not want to personalize this vote by adding the names of team members to the ballot. This was about selecting the right solution, NOT about WHO designed the solution. Each solution had enough of a description so that everyone would know where he or she was placing his or her vote. Although he knew that he could easily collect and tabulate the votes, he purposefully planned a team coffee break for after the vote. He found some fun and short video clips to show during the break.

Joe also gave careful consideration to the solution implementation team. And once he saw that ‘Solution A’ had received the most votes, he made a risky move. He decided to place the person who was the biggest fan of ‘Solution B’ in charge of the solution implementation team. He then carefully populated the team with a mix of approximately half people who favored ‘Solution A’ and half people who favored ‘Solution B’. Their first assignment was to create an implementation strategy and to present it to the rest of the team. EVERY person on the solution implementation team was required to present a piece of the strategy.

Why did Joe put so much effort into the decision-making process? He had a high-performing team. This was a team who worked well together and met challenging goals. A team who could argue, and then break into laughter. This time the team felt a bit more passionate about the issue at hand. The divide seemed a bit deeper than during any of their previous disagreements. Joe knew the importance of rebuilding the team after such a disagreement. He knew that if he wanted them to retain their strength that he needed them to see each other as partners and not as rivals, the sooner the better. Joe wanted his team to be free of strife so that they could continue to support one another and meet the challenges that were surely coming their way.