Tips for Project Managers

Project Management Tips“Project Management” can mean many different things. In simplistic terms it can be defined as meeting the goals/deliverables of a project within budget and on time. This column addresses some of the common challenges I encounter when coaching project managers.

Effective project management equates to many factors.  The basics are good planning, risk management, organizing and managing resources. Being able to establish and manage realistic expectations for actionable follow through, clear communications and end results often equate to “best practice.” The most effective project managers (PMs) are skilled not only in making the complex simple but being able to communicate the complex in a way that is both understandable and actionable. The best can anticipate the unforeseen including potential roadblocks and obstacles. Project managers that are worth their weight in gold are those with strong problem solving, negotiation, attention to detail, adaptability and interpersonal skills that equate to successful projects and positive customer relations.

To believe every item in a complex project will flow flawlessly isn’t realistic.  Given that, here are my coaching tips to help when the unexpected happens (and it will!):

  • Learn from mistakes (vs. assigning blame elsewhere).  A natural reaction of many project managers is to simply point a finger at either a team member or customer when things go wrong.  This often negatively impacts the relationship (and future business). Instead, “debrief” the problem or situation and “mine” the learnings so you (and your team) can apply them in the future.  Making mistakes the first time is one thing – what drives customers crazy (and away) is allowing the same mistakes to be made again and again.
  • Expect the unexpected. Set reasonable expectations (allow time for problems). Contingency plans are important! Plan for problems and challenges. Identify “go to” resource partners for complex concerns or critical project elements. Having a good relationship with those who can help you in a jam or direct you to the right resource is important.
  • Have checks and balances prior to project execution.   Increase the potential for accuracy, particularly for critical information on projects.  Establish a process to ensure another set of eyes (or multiple sets) that will provide review and authorization on detail items that have big consequences (this will also help you sleep better at night!) Examples of critical items include calculations, IP configurations, published contact information and security reviews/approvals.
  • Be willing to negotiate with customers and vendor partners when things go wrong.  Keep your customers out of trouble if you want future business- there is frequently shared responsibility for mistakes that do happen. Being flexible, admitting fault and “splitting the difference” can often mean saving an important customer or future partner relationships.
  • Identify and have access to key sponsors in the customer system.  If you are having trouble getting response, compliance or action required for the project to be successful, make sure the communication is coming from the right person in the system with the necessary authority and power to get action. Consultants and change agents take note– communications to resolve these issues ideally should come from the sponsors directly, particularly if getting action becomes problematic.
  • Stay positive and cool.  You losing your head when things go awry won’t help. In times of crisis people will gravitate and likely respond positively to those who display confidence and competence.  Focus on finding opportunities and thinking creatively while keeping calm.
  • Keep the end goal, and the relationship, in mind.  Yes, achieving the end result is important but so is how you got there. It’s the people end of the project management equation that often trip up project managers.  How you respond in times of crisis and dealt with others will be remembered long after the project is finished.

Why Workers Resist Change

Resistance to ChangeA client and I were recently discussing the natural resistance that accompanies most organizational change efforts when he quipped, “the only people who like change are wet babies!”  Well said.

Change is a part of our every day lives.  The pace of change is rapidly accelerating in workplaces.  Companies simply must keep up with the constant marketplace demands of change if they are to survive, much less thrive in this economy.

The ability to manage change effectively is a complex requirement of most managers and leaders in today’s workplaces.  Understanding how human’s process change is an important part of learning how to manage workplace change. The most challenging part of this equation is the “people” component.

Some of us are more receptive to change than others.  I’ve witnessed a worker revolt because of the need to move their desk by a foot! Others embrace almost any change as an exciting new opportunity or a deterrent to boredom.  Picture a typical bell curve when it comes to change.  About 20% of workers will be on the far end of the continuum of “Like change, bring it on!” while another 20% is on the other far end, “Not only no but —- no!”  The other 60% is in the middle and on the fence about the change; these are the folks you want to target your change management efforts towards.

Understanding the nature of change is important if you are going to succeed in your attempts at managing change in the workplace.  Humans seek control.  We tend to fear, dislike and avoid ambiguity.  We “react” negatively when our expectations for the way things should be aren’t met.  One rule of thumb–the more surprised we are by the change, the greater resistance you can expect.

It takes time for us to process and accept change.  Most initially respond to a change we didn’t create with disbelief and denial, “I can’t believe this is happening!”  This is usually the first stop on the change journey followed by resistance– picture arms crossed in defiance!  The next step is exploration, “OK, I guess we can try it anyway, do you have more information?” Exploration however is dependent on whether or not change is consistently well sponsored and communicated from leaders.  Once we have dipped our big toe into the change water and find it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, most of us will finally move to commitment (“I can support the change in this way”).

A few coaching tips to increase the likelihood of your change effort sticking:

  • Most humans are tuned into their own personal radio station-WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?)  Leaders trying to manage change should broadcast on this station to answers their typical questions like:  What will get better as a result of the change?  Worse? How much control do we have over what happens?  Can we assimilate this change at a reasonable pace?  Do we understand the micro/macro implications of the change?
  • People are more likely to support and commit to change they have helped create or design.  Involve your people (particularly the front line or “end users” of the change) early in the creation of the change.  Consult with them about their opinions.  What obstacles do they foresee?  How would they like to see the change rolled out?  What will work (or not) for them regarding the change?
  • Communicate often and consistently about the change.  Yes this will mean you have to repeat yourself—in my experience, most leaders greatly under communicate about change.  Use all available forums of communication available—intranet, email, phone, meetings and of course face-to-face conversations reinforcing the need and requirements for the change.  Wise sponsors of change know that what will dictate whether or not the change is adopted is their commitment and time spent shepherding it through the organization.
  • Allow people an opportunity to talk about and “vent” their frustrations about the change.  Yes, this may turn into a gripe session but better to get it out in the open and aired than for resistance to go underground.  Truly listening to understand what how your people feel about the change is important.    Once we feel “heard” we are more likely to move on.  Your people want to know that you care about them and how they will be impacted by the change. If you don’t respect them enough to at least hear them out about it—expect ongoing and potentially damaging resistance.

Employee Stress

Have you noticed Seattle workers seem more highly stressed than ever? It seems to me there is a perceptible increase in grouchiness, negative emotional reactivity and stress levels. This spring’s lousy weather coupled with the ongoing recession reality, global distress with the nightly barrage of horrific oil spill pictures seems to have combined for a perfect storm leaving everyone on edge.

Job stress specifically is on the rise. Recent surveys (Northwestern National Life) indicate that 25% of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. 75% of employees surveyed believe workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago (according to Princeton Survey Research Associates).

Workers are being asked to do more with less and cover task responsibilities for laid off co-workers and diminishing resources. Technically is advancing at warp speed, keeping most of us on a vertical learning curve just trying to keep up. 5 generations in the workplace keep us all challenged trying to communicate effectively with each other. Many workplaces operate at an unending fast pace where urgency has become the norm vs. the exception. The constant urgency keeps many in “fight or flight” mode day after day. Migraines and tension headaches are on the rise along with fatigue and illness. All this constant stress takes a tremendous toil on our physical and mental well-being. It’s no wonder many Americans dread going to work.

These are tough times for workers and leaders. No one is immune. So how can leaders keep up morale in these high stress times? I don’t have a magic bullet but I can offer some suggestions for leaders:

  • Manage by walking around. Don’t hide away in your office. Keep a pulse on what’s happening with your people. If you disappear or go silent, rumors will take over adding to the stress levels. When you do communicate, do so authentically and candidly. Treat your people like the adults they are and don’t withhold information.
  • Model work life balance. If you never leave the office, likely your staff will feel pressured to do the same. Avoid sending out emails to staff late at night! This is an unconscious message that they too should be tethered to their Blackberries and PDAs 24/7 which is unhealthy. Leaders and staff working at a rapid fire pace need to take time to rejuvenate. Taking care of the foundation is important. Exercise (it releases endorphins and burns off excess adrenaline and cortisol) and find ways to truly disconnect from the workplace.
  • Be careful about the emotional wake you leave with staff—your emotions are contagious. Your staff looks to you to see how you are reacting/responding to stress—if you get wigged out, expect them to follow you. Be conscious about how you show up emotionally to your people. As best you can, try to demonstrate a calm confident demeanor. If you find yourself highly anxious, develop methods to self soothe (I like belly breathing because your breath is always with you as a highly reliable strategy, besides it is proven to lower heart and respiratory rates).
  • Find a coach or trusted outside partner that you can let it all hang out with—someone you can safely vent to and be a sounding board. An objective perspective can often be invaluable during tough times. It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Isolating yourself isn’t healthy.
  • Notice the emotional field of your team and workplace. Give people time to talk about their stress and emotions during team meetings. People find comfort in hearing from other team members. Your job during these venting times is to listen well and offer them sincere appreciation and understanding for what they are going through.
  • Engage hearts and minds. Involve and consult with your team before making decisions. Ask them their opinions. Allow them opportunities to get involved with creative problem solving.
  • During highly stressful times its more important than ever to reward and recognize. From verbal thank you’s to special public recognition, make a concentrated effort to demonstrate true appreciation. Bring in special treats for the team (consider a massage therapist or yoga instructor) to reward a job well done.

Communication – Its All In the Delivery

In workplaces, the ability to get things done hinges on successful interpersonal communication. It’s a critical workplace skill.

One of the greatest challenges with interpersonal communication is having your message understood as you intended (particularly when giving feedback — the subject of last week’s column).

Successful communication happens when the message the sender intended to communicate is what is understood by the receiver. Misunderstandings occur because we interpret or “decode” messages through our unique human filters: culture (“it’s disrespectful to interrupt”), education, race, gender (think Mars versus Venus), age, health, status (“he’s the boss”), sense of self and our total life experiences — to name a few.

Our entire human history colors how we interpret and make meaning of what we hear and see. We make instant judgments about motives based on these filters (“she’s trying to control me”). Throw in a stressful workplace, an organizational hierarchy, time constraints, competing resources and distractions, and it’s a wonder we ever communicate successfully.

As receivers of messages, we attempt to understand the other by reading faces/body language and decipher (or make sense of) the words we hear. Have you ever said something seemingly neutral to someone and been surprised at their strong emotional response? Or have you noticed how two people can be in the same room, witness the same message and come away with two completely different perceptions? It’s not so much what I say, it’s what you hear, observe and how you make meaning.

To lessen the potential for misunderstandings and conflict, here are a few guidelines that may help:

  • Get clear about your intent before you communicate. What do you want to have happen as a result of the exchange? Communicate your intention (particularly if the message is sensitive or likely to be misunderstood). As a receiver of a message, don’t attempt mind-reading and “assume” intention about the other.
  • Non-verbal communication speaks volumes. Research estimates that as little as 7 percent of a communication’s effectiveness can be attributed to words alone — 38 percent is vocal (volume, pitch, etc.) and 55 percent body movements (mostly facial expressions). People tend to believe body language over words. Eye rolling or crossed arms send cues that can make words almost meaningless. Think of a salesperson who makes verbal promises but won’t make eye contact. We discount the words and equate “no eye contact” to shifty or dishonest behavior. The key is to be congruent — the video should match the audio.
  • Use “I” language versus vague pronouns (“they,” “we” or “you”). When we hear the word “you,” we often interpret this as blame or having a finger pointed at us (“you are unfair”). Take responsibility for your judgments and interpretations. Describe what is going on for you (I think, feel, want …) from the “I” position. Speaking for others is a recipe for trouble (“we all agree …”). Also problematic is speaking about people as if they aren’t present while they’re in the same meeting. Good rules to follow: Address people directly and speak for yourself.
  • Avoid interrupting (two ears/one mouth — use them proportionally) and finishing others’ sentences (a pattern with people who have worked together a long time). Ask what the other person is thinking, feeling or wanting versus assuming you know. Seek to understand: Paraphrase to try to ensure that you get the meaning of what the person said.
  • Choose your words carefully. Words mean different things to different people. For example, “satisfactory” is a word that needs to be well defined in the workplace. Other words have explosive potential, such as “unprofessional.”
  • Don’t assume you have been understood. Managers need to be particularly careful when giving complex or important instructions. Check in for understanding (“You look puzzled. Are you?”). Or if they give you a confusing response, rephrase for clarity. When trying to understand something complex, important or sensitive, state in your own words what you interpreted (“Let me see if I get this …”).

Aim for clarity. Be straightforward, concise and avoid overexplaining things. Too many words can confuse people. Sometimes it’s better to aim for the Reader’s Digest version. If it’s an important meeting, craft your main talking points in advance.

Mastering feedback

Closing the gap between goals and performance is a continual challenge for leaders. Mastering coaching skills can help close that gap. One of the most important skills to master is giving effective, and potentially difficult, feedback to others. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t born with natural talents in delivering challenging feedback, so some level of skill development is usually necessary.

Leaders with great coaching skills are adept at offering feedback that encourages learning, development and change — in good times and bad. They can deliver difficult information in a way that encourages behavior change. Feedback, as a core coaching skill, is delivering information and perspective to another person about an observable behavior.

How feedback is received, and whether it creates change, is all about how it is delivered. Many of us have a tendency to take challenging feedback personally. But most of us prefer feedback that is simple to understand, straightforward and presented in a non-accusatory style.

Here are some feedback delivery tips:

  • Consider timing. Feedback should be delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible. The year-end performance review is too late. Most people aren’t able to hear critical feedback (without getting defensive) when they are highly emotional or reactive. It’s much better to wait until people calm down and can hear it.
  • Prioritize critical behaviors. Too often, managers focus feedback on what bothers them in others versus identifying specific behaviors that drive performance. Or they give too much feedback at one time, which can overwhelm the person. The 80/20 rule applies — 80 percent of performance comes from about 20 percent of our behaviors. The best coaches identify critical behaviors, focus on key expectations and review specific behavioral changes that could significantly improve performance.
  • Be behaviorally specific. Encourage the employee to take responsibility by focusing on acts, not attitudes. State the information in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Effective feedback doesn’t leave the employee wondering what you meant. To be a great coach, you need to be a great observer. The best feedback is factual — what a video camera would have recorded. Just like playing the game tapes in preparation for the “big game,” managers use observable behaviors and patterns to help clarify the issues and identify behaviors that require change.
  • Identify change as a process versus an event. The most effective coaches provide ongoing feedback and encourage people to learn from their successes and failures. They set the expectation that feedback needs to be a two-way communication process; they are open to and encourage reciprocal feedback.
  • Identify impact. Great coaches illuminate “blind spots” so people see themselves as others see them. They provide feedback that identifies the consequence, feelings or impact of the behavior in question. It is not uncommon for individuals to be oblivious to the distress a simple comment or action can cause.
  • Define expectations. Feedback includes offering suggestions, direction or identifiable goals. What do you want the employee to do differently? An effective challenge can be to identify what you want more or less of: “I want more suggestions for solutions and fewer complaints during our meetings.”

Best-practice coaching and feedback requires different approaches for different situations.

Coaching the most talented people can be tricky. Providing feedback to high-performers often requires a different skill set and approach. By their very nature, high-performers are different — they get bored easily, and when in trouble may be difficult to challenge without negatively affecting motivation. High-performers tend to run at light speed while generating the kind of results that senior management loves — they require a specialized set of coaching skills to keep them challenged and on track.