Making meetings work for you

Meetings are the bane of many (most) people’s work existence and 59% of office workers say that wasteful meetings interfere with their productivity. This is no less true in the project management world where meetings are a vital part of the project’s path to completion. But is every meeting necessary and what is the price you pay for time wasters?

More than 17 million meetings are held every day in workplaces in the United States alone, and loss estimates due to excessive meetings could be as high as $3.7 billion annual. A study in the UK showed that the average office worker spends around 16 hours in meetings each week. That’s over 800 hours a year.

Of course there is value in a group of like-minded people around a table providing vibrant input but all too often meetings turn out to be a protracted waste of time, with attendees checking their email or surfing the internet while someone drones on in the background. There is no doubt that face to face interaction often trumps email communication but it’s all about striking the right balance.

Here are some simple tips for making your meetings more productive:

  1. Consider whether the meeting is really necessary – often there is a better and more effective way of achieving a particular outcome.
  2. Create an agenda with specific time allotted for each topic and appoint a time keeper to ensure that the discussion stays on track.
  3. Always start (and finish) on time; and keep your meetings short and sharp – remember human beings have an attention span of less than 30 minutes.
  4. Restrict the number of attendees – according to the Rule of 7, every attendee over seven reduces the likelihood of making a good, quick, executable decision by 10%. Once you hit 16 or 17, your decision effectiveness is close to zero.
  5. Clarify the purpose of every meeting and each attendee’s role in it and advise them accordingly prior to the meeting.
  6. Keep meetings for solving problems and coming up with new ideas. Use electronic tools to keep the team updated on project status instead of making them sit through status reports.
  7. Ask attendees to leave their cellphones and iPads in a basket at the door – productivity drops if half the attendees are doing other things online during the meeting.
  8. Wrap up every meeting with a clear plan of what needs to be done as a result of decisions taken and assign actions to the appropriate owners.
  9. Richard Branson, Virgin founder, holds discussions in innovative spaces – anyone can leave their desks behind and head outdoors, because a “change of scenery and a bit of fun does wonders for getting people thinking differently and loosening up!”
  10. Christopher Frank, an author and vice president at American Express, suggests a Twitter-like hack – start your meeting by asking each person to articulate in five words or less the problem to be solved.

Whichever approach you favour, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how to maximise productivity in project meetings and whether it’s worth cutting down on non-essential meetings. You’ll not only have a more productive team but they are bound to be happier too!

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.  |  Image created by Freepik.com

Effective change management is key to any project’s success

Project management is inherently about change; and human beings are inherently resistant to change. It makes sense then that a competent change manager should be an integral member of any project management team. That’s according to Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting.

Unfortunately, the role of a well-considered and strategic change management plan is often underestimated. This often results in the change management aspect of projects getting farmed out to the human resources or public relations departments. But that, with respect, is a recipe for disaster.

Effective change management is not just about getting the changes implemented as smoothly as possible, but also about ensuring that the intended benefits are realised in the short- and long-term; and this requires buy in from all stakeholders.

For maximum efficacy, the change management stream would run parallel to the project, with the change manager working closely at with the project manager and reporting to the project sponsor.

Very often the resistance to change is based on fear of the unknown and an important role of change management is to allay those fears. The change manager (commonly an industrial psychology major) would start by identifying all stakeholders and conducting a change readiness assessment. Once stakeholders have been mapped, a change management strategy and plan can then be developed.

The change manager will also be able to identify resisters and adopters; and project champions.

When it comes to change, stakeholders general fall into three categories: the early adopters; the neutrals; and the resisters.

The early adopters need little persuasion; they are generally eager for change and need only to be informed of what’s coming and how they can implement it. The neutrals – arguably the majority in any given group – are mostly open to persuasion (providing they can be convinced of the benefits). The resisters are the most difficult group to deal with and can either actively or passively endanger the project if not, at least, managed properly.

An effective way of changing perceptions is setting up a pilot group and spending time actually showing the group the advantages of the new system. Often just providing clarity can be a game changer.

A strong change manager is an invaluable resource for the project manager and, according to McManus, change management should never be regarded as an optional extra, or “nice to have”, but rather as a key component of any project.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.  |  Image created by Freepik.com.

Lessons learned often don’t get enough emphasis in project management

The well-known quote by writer and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” certainly holds true in the world of project management.

According to the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), lessons learned are the learnings gained from the process of performing the project; and the purpose of documenting these is to share and use knowledge derived from experience to promote the recurrence of desirable outcomes.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why then is more emphasis not placed on this valuable step in project management?

According to Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting, “documenting lessons learned is not a nice to have; it’s an imperative, without which a project manager’s (PM) future chances of failure are greatly increased”.

Often lessons learned are only reflected on during close out meetings, by which time people may well have forgotten what happened during the course of the project, or team members may have left. At close out, the team will probably already be thinking about their next project and may not be in the right headspace to put the current project under the microscope.

McManus recommends a lessons learned register which can be included as part of weekly meetings by asking the question, “what did we learn this week” throughout the lifecycle of the project.

“Keep a rolling log of lessons learned, give the team access to it and make sure that it is reviewed and included in the close out documentation and history of project so that, when a similar project is undertaken, others can learn from the previous experiences,” says McManus.

While many programs have a lessons learnt space, you can easily create your own. Be sure to make it accessible and encourage team members to record their experiences and observations. It’s important to involve the entire project team and approach the exercise from the right starting point. It should never be about blaming anyone for things that have gone wrong. Encourage everyone to share their successes and failures openly with the sole objective being to do it better the next time around.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.  |  Image created by Freepik.com.

Want a better team? Be a better leader.

The term “project manager” is a something of a misnomer; project management is as much, if not more, about managing people as it is about projects. Two key aspects of being an effective project manager is the ability to motivate your team and to see, and clearly articulate, the bigger picture. People need to understand why they are doing what they are doing and, in the project management world, it falls within the ambit of the PM’s role to ensure that the team has a clear vision of where they’re headed, and why they are going there, not only how they will get there.

Often an IT PM came into that role because of his or her technical skills, but being a good project manager means also developing “softer” skills that bring out the best in the team.

In their best seller, Extreme Ownership, authors and former Navy SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share a valuable lesson about leadership: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

During a Facebook Live interview, Babin said he can remember times from his years with the SEALs where he thought, “If I just had a better team, I would do better.”

“Wrong,” he said of this train of thought. “If I was a better leader, my team would have been better, and that’s what leaders have to recognize and step up and make happen.”

Top of the list of good project manager leadership qualities is the willingness to be accountable for your team. Own the team, own the project and own the results, both good and bad. This includes understanding that not all team members will respond to the same management style. Appreciating what makes individual team members tick and being able to tap into that, in terms of managing and motivating them, is a powerful management tool.

And it’s not just about managing the team, the PM also has the responsibility to manage “upwards”. The PM is the link between the project team and the executive. This means not being afraid to ask the right questions and, when necessary, deliver “unpopular” news. A good PM understands the strategic objective of the project and communicates it, not only to the team, but to all the stakeholders across the business.

Leadership is also about identifying non-performers and being able to deal with non-performing individuals with the minimum impact on the team. While it’s important not to break the team down or destroy morale, PMs must be brave enough to take action and remove a team member when necessary.

It’s important to know your own strengths, and weaknesses, as a leader so that you can build on the former and mitigate the latter.  If you’re a people’s person and you can build people up, great. If not, you may need some help in that department and sometimes enlisting the help of a project administrator, who can take care of the softer issues, may be the answer.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.
© Image created by Freepik.com

Ignorance of the law is no excuse!

The legal principle “ignorantia legis neminem excusat” (Latin for ignorance of law excuses no one) has never been more apt than it is today. In some sectors – like financial services – companies have had to take entire teams on board to navigate the quagmire of the ever changing legislative landscape.

IT project managers (PMs) will know better than anyone the value and power of data and the importance of securing and using the data appropriately. PMs carry a double burden, ensuring that their project stays both within the legal frameworks of the industry that the business operates and the company’s own IT security plan.

Risk management is one of the ten knowledge areas in the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK in which a project manager must be competent and effective risk management is key to any project’s success. PMs are expected to keep up to date with the legislative landscape to ensure that the organization does not flout any laws in pursuit of the project in hand. This includes legislation that is on the horizon and which may be enacted by the time, or shortly after, the project goes live.

Legislation like the Protection of Personal Information (PoPI) and anti-corruption legislation, to name but two examples, need careful analysis and consideration to ensure that all aspects of the projects – both in terms of the execution and outcome of the project – are within the law.

The PM is also responsible for keeping the project team up to date on legislation that impacts on the project every step of the way. This means providing regular feedback and information sessions to the project team on relevant legislative requirements as the project unfolds.

A useful resource for any PM is ongoing dialogue with the internal compliance team, which is ideally equipped to provide guidance on legislation affecting the business.

Sometimes even the most diligently reviewed projects can transgress the rules and then it is important that the PM has protected himself by conducting due diligence in terms of securing information and having communicated all the relevant information regarding legislation requirements and policies to the project team.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.
Image Created by Awesomecontent – Freepik.com

Multi-tasking – a curse or a skill?

Hands up if you’ve ever checked emails while watching TV; typed up some notes for your next meeting while listening to a presentation; or popped into social media while on a telephone conversation. Most of us resort to multi-tasking because despite having a multitude of technological aids that are supposed to make our lives easier we’ve never been busier.

The very technology that has made our lives so much easier (who would argue against the joy of internet banking, versus bank queues) has also enslaved us. Just look around the next time you are in a restaurant…it’s not uncommon to see a group of diners (especially if there are teenagers in their midst) each engrossed in their own mobile phone.

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

According to Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, multitasking is really task-switching.”

“When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.

“It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity, he says, because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears—plus, you never get fully “in the zone” for either activity.

The moral of the story? Do one thing at a time, you’ll get more done. And you’ll do it better.

According to Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting, this advice is never more valid than in the world of project management.

“Project managers are inherently expected to have many balls in the air at any given time. Cultivating the art of being mindful; actually being fully present and not distracted, is a valuable skill.”

This view supports the Theory of Constraint proposed by Eli Goldratt is the Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain. According to Goldratt, overload in a situation that relies on constrained resources to get something done leads to “bad multitasking”, which in turn leads to inefficiencies and impacts on performance.

“The solution is simple – albeit not always easy to implement: focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next one and ensure that the workflow within your team is monitored so that team members are not overloaded and left with no option but to multitask,” says McManus.

When constructing your schedule, ensure that resources are not allocated 100% of their day to tasks, leave time for administration and time outs, which are vital for mental health. People’s availability is simply not the default eight hours a day as enforced by most planning tools and changing this to reflect a more realistic allocation, like six hours a day, will improve planning accuracy.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.

Are you a strategy activist?

In the past, project managers (PMs) were first and foremost, planners and executors; individuals who excelled in coming up with agreed deliverables, according to an approved time line. But that is changing and changing fast. Tomorrow’s PMs will be strategic warriors, making a significant contribution where it matters most: executing the business strategy.

Traditionally, projects are almost always owned by executives much higher up the corporate food chain and the PM is quite simply expected to, as the saying goes, do or die. Sadly, many a “vanity project” has gobbled resources only to fail because it did not further the business strategy.

PMs are increasingly expected to display a strong business sense, enabling them to execute the business strategy of the project rather than just deliver a series of milestones.

Gartner® Inc. in their “Predicts 2017: PPM Leaders” report, published in December 2016, says the world’s leading research and advisory company, predicts that by 2021, “enterprises that commit dedicated organisational resources to ensuring that strategy is successfully executed will be 80% more likely to be industry leaders”.

In essence, PMs now need to become “strategy activists”, familiarizing themselves with strategic planning methods to ensure that they never lose focus of the business outcomes of the project. In addition to honing new skills, this calls for the courage to ask the right questions every step of the way, starting with “why are we doing this…what is the strategic outcome that this project supports?”

And, if you are not yet convinced, consider this: according to Gartner, “by 2020, Project Management Offices (PMOs) with an activist orientation will displace most passive PMOs”.

Ensuring that PMOs remain relevant and optimally effective within an organisation also requires that careful thought be given to how the function is structured. Veteran PM, Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting, supports the appointment of a chief project officer at executive level, with the PMO operating from that level down.

McManus says that the PMO is unequivocally a strategic function and it should not sit within IT (or even finance) where it often does.

“To give the function the necessary ‘weight’ to make the required contribution to the business’ strategy, the PMO should be run by an executive that reports directly to the CEO or chief risk officer,” he says.

Once PMs tap into the strategic importance of project management, the whole dynamic changes. The PM evolves from being a policeman of deliverables and deadlines to a strategic enabler. This includes eliminating barriers to ensure quick and effective delivery and providing constant feedback on whether the project is delivering on the strategic drivers.

© Tony McManus PMP®, MD of McManus Consulting

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