Digital Downside

Modern Project Management Tools Shouldn't Replace Face Time



By Derrick A. Richardson, PMP

Today’s hyper-digital working environment makes it easier than ever for project managers to work with teams across the globe. Cloud-based platforms offering integrated project and portfolio management solutions have emerged, combining business case analysis tools, stage-gate mapping and Gantt chart-tracking capabilities with social media-style team collaboration interfaces.

While such all-in-one software packages can be useful, my experience implementing one in the project management office I managed was a disaster. The problem wasn’t the software—there was a lack of organizational understanding about project management and naive attitudes about communication among the company’s rank and file.

The teams adopting the platform became preoccupied with the tool and its “requirements” instead of embracing behaviors consistent with project management good practices and common sense. Project teams assumed the ability to communicate about milestones and tasks from within the software was superior to email and far better than live conversation. Additionally, because we were in a fee-for-service business, teams became obsessed with tracking internal full-time-equivalent spend rather than actual task execution. Because of all these issues, project problems intensified as the platform was adopted.

Old-School Diagnostics

While this is just one example, I have noticed that similar tools create an overreliance on—and misuse of—digital communication channels. We often brag about how fast information flows and how connected we are. But the “always on” culture of having to constantly manage multiple, often bloated information streams can quickly erode connectivity. Project teams can become overloaded with too much information if it’s delivered in the wrong format.

An essential duty of the project manager is to foster effective communication within their teams. With all our digital gadgets and platforms, sometimes we forget that the most powerful diagnostic and problem-solving tool available to any project manager is live conversation. Well-established communication theory suggests that messages are best understood during face-to-face conversation incorporating nonverbal physical cues. Message clarity falls off precipitously when the mode of communication switches to phone conversation, and written messages lacking body language and tone of voice are often a hotbed of miscommunication and inefficiency.

Misalignment among stakeholders, lack of clarity about project purpose and personality conflicts that hurt team dynamics are a frequent source of project problems. And it’s nearly impossible for the project manager to suss out these subtleties via a text message or through the choppy audio of a conference call. While a team that is not co-located can’t always meet in person, project managers must prioritize face-to-face, interactive meetings whenever possible to ensure reliable, accurate communication.

Project teams can become overloaded with too much information if it’s delivered in the wrong format.

Digital tools can boost productivity if used judiciously and thoughtfully. But organizations lacking depth of understanding about project management, team engagement and communication often fall into the trap of thinking that volume and speed of communication are more important than quality conversations among team members.

While evaluating an integrated project management software platform, an executive once turned to me and said, “This is great! Our project teams will never have to meet or talk to one another ever again!” I knew then that project management was in deep trouble at that company.

Modern project management tools are like hammers: They are capable of building beautiful, majestic structures as easily as they can lay waste and wreak havoc. The skill and experience of the person holding the hammer makes all the difference. PM

img Derrick Richardson, PMP, is an executive-level project management consultant based in Union City, California, USA.



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