As project managers, we should be primarily focused more on how the team is operating, coming up with solutions or growing in their capabilities than what the solution is. In other words, we focus on “how” the team is performing more so than the “what” they are coming up with. Your team, if formed correctly, should have the necessary skill sets to provide workable solutions and quality deliverables so long as they are provided with an environment and collaboration tools to feel the value of their contributions. It is inevitable, though, that your team, your project, and even yourself that we feel “stuck”. We are at an impasse as to what to do next, how to resolve a misunderstanding or, even worse, there’s a fear of taking a next step. It’s sometimes difficult to determine what the next step might be or maybe even whether you should take a next step.

The point of this saying is that no matter your circumstance you will always have an opportunity to adjust your direction once you start moving. Although the team is going through a lot of motions or “turning the wheel” so to speak they are not really making progress towards an end goal. Here are some situations where this can occur and tips you may find helpful as you help the team on track with their deliverables.

Problem #1 – Analysis Paralysis

When reviewing progress on a deliverable that is late or delayed, we may hear from team members that they haven’t had the time to appropriately assess the problem in detail. Or maybe theysay they need to look at the solution from a different angle. Or, even more to the point, I’ve heard the team members say simply, “it’s not ready yet” without any specifics on what is not ready.

These responses may all point to “analysis paralysis”. One of the key strengths you can have on your team is to have people that have deep analytical tendencies. The team benefits from their contribution in that we need to know we have considered all potential pros and cons on a subject or solution. However, the team also needs to be able to move forward even if there are still some questions to be answered. In project management terms the equivalent of unanswered questions, or uncertainties, falls in the knowledge area of risk management.

If we are applying the intent of risk management in a healthy way, we simply take the unanswered questions and make sure we have those visible to the team in our risk register. This has a couple of different advantages in these situations.

  • It provides a visible place to capture the concern or question that the team has that can be regularly reviewed and discussed.
  • It will show the team member or team members that their concerns are thoughtfully being considered so that they don’t feel as rushed to pressured to come up with the answer to meet a deadline.

The desire is to get your team members to accept that there is likely no perfect answer to every question. In this way they can move forward with the deliverable with the knowledge that the questions that are troubling them will have answers eventually.

Problem #2 – Writer’s block

Most often, writer’s block pertains to authors that are unable to write effectively or get their thoughts organized. However, I’ve also seen this in individuals and teams in simply putting together their thoughts on a solution that needs their attention or just to progress work of any kind. There can be many things that contribute to writer’s block, but generally they will fall into one of two categories; 1) too many distractions, or 2) holding on too tightly to the content itself. Let’s see how we might address either of these situations.

Too many distractions: As individuals and as teams we are more distracted each day with our current technology set – phones provide a wealth of information, entertainment and social interactions. In addition, there are work settings that are in vogue that contribute to a highly distractive environment. Harvard did a study on open workspace design from which much has been written on how these “collaboration inspired” concepts have actually had a highly negative impact on face to face interactions.

So, if we are to get past our writer’s block we will need to figure out the best way to ensure we differentiate between time to focus on reflecting, thinking and working through solutions while at the same time opening ourselves up to the collaboration that is so needful in ensuring quality deliverables. Here’s a couple of ideas that I’ve seen work well with teams:

  • In one team setting we provided yellow caution tape that could be put across the entry to the workspace so that people outside the team knew that it was not the appropriate time to interrupt the team as they individually worked on their deliverables.
  • Putting up a flag or other visual item in the individual workspace when the team member needs some time to focus.
  • Putting focus time on the calendar – this may be the same time for all team members. Given that it’s on the calendar it will change your availability in your Instant Messaging system to not available as well.

All these team norms fall into the category of what we as project managers call the Team Charter. Discussing team norms in the context of the Team Charter as the team forms can be a powerful tool in establishing how the team members will effectively maximize their time, get into a cadence of delivery so that the project itself will benefit.

Holding on too tightly: Often we want to put everything into our work product, we see it as a reflection of ourselves – our talent, our passion our validation of the hard work we’ve put into arriving at the place where we can provide a significant contribution. This can create an emotional response if we can’t put all the pieces together to really showcase our talents.

This may sound a bit extreme, but there is an innate desire that we all desire to do well and to be viewed by ourselves and others as a meaningful contributor. These characteristics in us has been studied by those in psychology, and more specifically in the area of motivational theories. There are several of these theories, generally, though, people fall into one of four different personas as they participate as members of the team:

  • The deep thinkers: Some of your team members will be highly focused on getting the solution absolutely locked in from every angle. Often, we hear them say things like, “we haven’t looked at this from every angle yet”. They can’t move forward until every question has been answered, and in times of conflict they must be proved right. Most importantly, though, they are the types of contributors that prevent mistakes in the solution if given the appropriate amount of time.
  • The fast movers: These team members always must be on the move. If they don’t see progress, they get uncomfortable and want to take over the solution. Not only are these personas competitive, they are also the types of team members that have to win the argument in times of conflict.
  • The social butterflies: Do you have some team members that feel like they can’t contribute as effectively when they “aren’t having fun”? These are personas that need a strong social fabric in order to feel they are effectively contributing. In times of conflict they tend to retreat or play the role of peace maker.
  • The equalizer: This persona is the person who wants to ensure everyone is operating on an equal playing field. If they can’t move forward it’s typically because they don’t feel everyone’s perspective is heard. In times of conflict they tend to get emotional about how others are treated more so than the subject of the conflict.

For those of you who are familiar with the theories behind “whole brain thinking” (the team construct kind rather than the left/right brain construct) these descriptors may sound familiar to you. In fact, there are several commercially available tests and services, some with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication, that can help assess your team members and their personas in the team context. I have found these personas to hold true in most, if not all, teams. In each persona is a strength the team can leverage to deliver a higher quality product, but also detractors that can create sources of conflict among the team members.

It is in the times of conflict that the team is exposed for the rationale for not moving forward, which can also be what they are holding on too tightly. In fact, the team needs all four personas to be effective, the deep thinker will need to be comfortable enough angles are considered, the fast movers need to see progress, the social butterflies will need to be fully engaged, and the equalizer to know that we have respected and valued everyone’s contributions. When the team members allow for imperfections in their view, progress can still occur as they then leverage their strengths to adjust as the team moves forward.

Problem #3 – I’m waiting on <insert team member’s name here>.

Of all the problems in making progress on your project’s deliverables, one of the more frustrating and devastating situations is when someone didn’t complete their work because they didn’t have the information needed to finish. This can be either a real or perceived lack of team interactions. Sometimes they did have the information they required and either missed it or didn’t understand that was what was needed. In any case, team member interactions should be the primary focus of the project manager and falls under our primary responsibilities in integrating the team and project work.
When the team is not tightly integrated it may fall into a couple of general problem areasin which I’d include communications management as well as rewards and recognition. Let’s look at these and how we might solve them.
Communications and team management: As we manage our projects we are typically consumed with communications management. There are so many communications that come our way and by so many various means that it can often be difficult to sort through what is important. Meetings upon meetings and tons of emails can be effectively handled if we remember some key principles.

  • Meeting management: Generally speaking, meetings fall into one of three categories, 1) information sharing, 2) working sessions and 3) decision making. Here’s a reference you can use to better your understanding of how these meetings relate to each other.

    Meeting type Goal of the meeting Facilitator Agenda type Interactions
    Information Sharing To make sure everyone has a common understanding of status and progress as well as other key project information Project Manager Standing agenda

    Past work

    Future work

    Risks

    Issues

    Actions

    Decisions reached

    Let each go in turn.
    Working Sessions To come up with a solution, understanding of needs and expectations or project deliverables Subject Matter Expert Typically. a customized agenda tailored to the subject or outcome desired Highly interactive, each team member should feel valued for their contribution
    Decision Making Make the decision Person who is putting forward the recommended decision Tailored to the decision to be reached, but normally presentation of the recommendations and limited background information Drive for the decision, you don’t want to become distracted by detail in the alternatives, the team should be able to summarize their work.

    For each of these types of meetings we should stay on target with our focus on the type we are conducting. The type of meeting that most frequently gets off track is the information sharing. They can devolve very easily into working sessions when team members want to resolve issues during the discussion. Two things that are often the case is, 1) you don’t have all the necessary stakeholders in the information sharing meeting and 2) some of your participants are not needed for the working session. In both aspects we often result in a wasted effort. Consider putting in your Team Charter some rules such that if the answer to the issue can be arrived at in 30 seconds or less let’s do that, but if not, it should be a working session of some type.

  • Communications Methods: If we are to follow project management best practices for communications will find there are three communications methods; push, pull and interactive. Let’s look at how these three methods compare.
    • Interactive–this method is defined as the most efficient method of communication for getting feedback from the participants. Some examples are meetings, instant messaging, conference calls or simply in-person or virtual voice dialogue. To even better gauge the feedback we’re receiving, having face to face contact, in-person or virtual, is the most effective way to make sure our message is being understood.
    • Push – this is a method by which we simply send information to recipients without the expectation of getting immediate feedback. Email falls into this method of communication, but it is often intended by the sender to get feedback from the recipient. How many times do we ask many recipients a question in an email trying to get that feedback? Often, the result is either confusion or latency in the response.
    • Pull–When we send a link to a portal or dashboard or some other communication item this is considered a pull communication. This method works well for information that needs to be broadly shared, but if it is not easy to find we may find this to be ineffective at distributing what people need to know.

    As project managers we owe it to ourselves to have a good communications plan that considers all these methods and how to leverage them in our project teams. Broad use of interactive tools such as Skype, Teams or other real time collaboration tools can ensure real-time interactive communications with our team members. When we use methods like push communications, establish norms such as prefixing or standardizing the subject lines of your emails to help team members easily sort their inbox. And with pull communications set the example by using the sources as the primary view when working with team members. Think through these items as an architecture of information to help the team collaborate.

  • Recognition and Rewards: Too often I’ve heard project managers complain about how they don’t have the resources to recognize or reward the team. To me, it’s never a question of whether I can have a recognition plan, the question is – what is my recognition plan? Certainly, there are both tangible and intangible rewards that can be provided, but in the cases where tangible rewards that is no excuse not to recognize the team in my view, as intangible rewards are always at our disposal. Let’s look at a couple of principles regarding how we reward the team.
    • Rewards and recognition should always be given in the context of contributing to team objectives. In this we are different from operations management in that their role is to ensure the team member is rewarded for the contribution to the business unit organization. If we are brought into that discussion for things like end of year evaluations and so on this can be one of the most endearing compliments a project manager can be given. We are going to spend much more time talking about this point in later articles in this series.
    • Your team members always need to know the value of their contributions. When your team members know they are valued they will, in turn, recognize the value in others’ contributions. When we have “arrived” as project managers it will be when the team recognizes itself. What better way for a team to grow together than when they begin to compliment each other with an authenticity and respect that has grown it’s way into the team fabric!

    This is a very brief look at these topics. We are going to spend much more time talking about these specific concepts in later articles in this series, and I look forward to sharing them with you!

Ultimately, we as project managers are mostly dependent on the trust of our team members that their strengths are being leveraged for the good of the team. If we sincerely take their concerns into account, using the project management skill sets and tools, that trust will grow and help teams move past these blockers. When the team is effectively engaged using all the tools and techniques at our disposal, we will enable meaningful progress and build in the team the desire to keep moving and adjust as needed. There is never a prefect answer, not today anyways, but let’s continue to learn and adapt as we travel on our project journey.

Thanks for reading, and look for the next in our series the “10 Things I’ve Learned as a Project Manager”.

Dan Barringer

dan@projectsbydesign.net