Pick up the Pace
When Schedules are Compressed, Project Managers Should Focus on Team Engagement and Cohesion
BY KATE ROCKWOOD
ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL GARLAND
David Barbieri, PMP, knows how to put the pedal to the metal. When he was given 12 months to complete a construction project that would normally take 24, he didn't roll up his sleeves and start compressing the schedule straightaway. With his timeline cut in half, he doubled down on building a cohesive project team.
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“I got a cross-functional group in a room together and challenged them: We start now and end here. How do you do it?” recalls Mr. Barbieri, an industrial project manager for Kemira, Louisville, Kentucky, USA. “It might mean a new process or more money, but everything is possible. If people really think it's not possible, I need them off the team.”
As innovation and business cycles accelerate across many sectors, organizations are scrambling to respond to shifting market demands. That can mean shorter, rapid-fire projects where time is of the essence.
Whether they're shaving three weeks off a two-month software development effort or three months off an 18-month construction phase, project managers must fine-tune their team motivation approach. The collaborative culture that might usually grow over a series of months has to be established in mere days. The project's strategic value must be immediately made clear—and used to motivate team members to stay highly engaged and productive. The frequency dial on check-ins and status meetings must be cranked to full tilt.
“With a fast-tracked project, a project manager is something of a benevolent dictator,” says Mr. Barbieri. “You hear the team's concerns and conflicts, but you need them to push forward and do it anyway.”
Project managers can pick up the pace—without compromising quality or creating friction with colleagues—by sidestepping these common speed bumps.
“It might mean a new process or more money, but everything is possible. If people really think it's not possible, I need them off the team.”
—David Barbieri, PMP, Kemira, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Accelerate: Showcase senior leader support.
Project managers rarely dictate deadlines, but team members might still blame the messenger when they're feeling crunched, says Murray Duke, PMP, project management office governance and systems, AIG Technologies, Tokyo, Japan.
A regulatory audit of a recent software infrastructure project found the organization needed to add some additional functionality to one of its products. But the traditional life cycle for that implementation wouldn't meet the audit deadline. So the project was fast-tracked out of necessity, Mr. Duke says. Before convening the team to outline the herculean task ahead of them, he scheduled a lengthy chat with the project sponsor.
“Getting the right management buy in and support made it easier to stress to the engineers that the urgency was coming from the top and not just from an overly aggressive project manager,” he says.
Spelling out the business case for the shorter launch—or the ramifications of a missed deadline—also can quell team resistance to longer days and shorter delivery cycles.
Keep in Mind: If the team is grumbling because they're already stretched thin on other projects, management buy in also can help clear some of the competing tasks holding the team back. “Become an enabler for faster delivery by freeing up the team to focus on this project,” Mr. Duke says. “You might be able to negotiate with other teams to shift or delay work on other projects, for example.”
“Getting the right management buy-in and support made it easier to stress to the engineers that the urgency was coming from the top.”
—Murray Duke, PMP, AIG Technologies, Tokyo, Japan
Speed Bump: Team unity is lacking.
Accelerate: Schedule bonding time (really).
No matter how tight the timeline is, avoid shortcuts that bypass building team unity. “In the heat of the moment, on a super-short project, it's easy to overlook things like introductions and icebreakers,” says Ravindra Chaudhary, PMP, technical project manager, Birch Communications, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. But skipping early team building exercises can derail the project days or weeks later. If team members don't understand who's handling what, work might be duplicated and tasks could slide through the cracks. People might choose—consciously or subconsciously— to prioritize other projects, where they feel more connected to the team. Worse yet: If a crisis hits, they might not band together.
“Even on a short-term project, you have to slow down and invest in those little things that can seed team collaboration,” Mr. Chaudhary says. His favorite lightning-fast game: Ask for two-minute intros from each person that include personal and professional tidbits, then quiz team members on what they remember about each other. “If you really don't want to take away from work time, suggest going for lunch or happy hour,” he says. “It helps the team start faster and work more cohesively during execution.”
Keep in Mind: Virtual teams tend to take longer to bond than co-located teams. And that can spell disaster with a compressed schedule. “On a fast-tracked project, you need everyone working together as a team from day one,” says Stefano Riva, PMP, a Geneva, Switzerland-based senior project manager at PMI Global Executive Council member Thomson Reuters. To speed up virtual team cohesion, he suggests asking team members to default to video chats instead of phone calls. Similarly, picking up the phone instead of shooting off emails is more likely to forge meaningful connections—and is often more efficient, as well.
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“Even on a short-term project, you have to slow down and invest in those little things that can seed team collaboration.”
—Ravindra Chaudhary, PMP, Birch Communications, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Speed Bump: Weekly check-ins won't cut it.
Accelerate: Make meetings frequent—and focused.
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“Turn the communication frequency higher … so the reaction time can be that much faster if there's an issue.”
—Ravindra Chaudhary, PMP
It might seem counterintuitive to load up a shortened schedule with more frequent meetings, but waiting a week between check-ins is simply too long, says Mr. Duke. Team members might not elevate obstacles and issues swiftly, leaving them to fester until the next check-in. If that's a week later, the team might have lost all that time.
“To ensure the correct velocity on short-term projects, I always take an agile approach and implement daily morning 15-minute meetings,” says Mr. Duke. But these check-ins aren't for discussing upcoming deadlines and deliverables. Instead, he sticks to three key questions: What did each person achieve yesterday? What's planned for today? What obstacles are slowing the team down?
Project managers should set clear communication expectations at the project's kickoff, such as communicating the urgency and impact of the project through daily use of team room poster pre-sentations. At those gatherings and other meetings, it can be useful to emphasize that the shorter schedule might mean not everything is perfect—and that that's okay, Mr. Barbieri says.
“When you have a tight schedule, it will be hard to build a complete consensus, and you'll need to say ‘no' to a lot of scope changes,” he says. “After a few ‘no's', you'll get a reputation and the suggested changes will die down.”
Keep in Mind: Team members aren't the only ones who can benefit from more frequent check-ins during short-term projects. Mr. Chaudhary, who has worked on numerous rapid-fire IT projects, says all stakeholders can benefit from steady contact when project velocity is at full tilt. “Turn the communication frequency higher, so stakeholders are comfortable— and so the reaction time can be that much faster if there's an issue,” he says. PM
When projects have a compacted schedule, spotting the subtle signals that something is amiss could prevent a missed deadline. Be on the lookout for these red flags.
With a compressed schedule, team members need to feel comfortable owning their project tasks and activities. If a team member is constantly seeking additional oversight—to the point of wanting to be micromanaged—address the situation head-on, says David Barbieri, PMP, industrial project manager, Kemira, Louisville, Kentucky, USA. “There aren't enough hours in the day for the project manager to be deep in every detail. You have to be comfortable delegating control—and the team needs to be comfortable claiming it.”
Team members might be more reluctant to bring up deadline doubts on a fast-tracked project. But “if the team is unwilling to explore better alternatives to the solutions or is looking up to management to provide instructions to execute, that could be a red flag that there's an issue people don't want to elevate,” says Vasudeva Sharma Mallavajhala, PMP, associate director, Novartis, Hyderabad, India.
“Short, intense sprints shouldn't mean lower-quality work,” Mr. Mallavajhala says. If quality or productivity decreases steadily over time, management's intervention is needed to improve team morale, or the project team could be looking at a lot of rework—and a shattered schedule.