The ultimate task master
Team members lose focus, personal problems crop up and poor time-management skills run rampant. Any project manager can tick off a million different reasons why project timelines and schedules get derailed. Although most master schedules don't contain line items for such distractions, it's a project manager's job to ensure deadlines are met regardless of the circumstances. To keep employees on track without sparking a mutiny takes proper planning, of course, as well as open lines of communication.
Laying the Groundwork
One reason team members get overwhelmed is they never had a complete understanding of the project's guidelines in the first place.
“A lot of projects aren't defined by attainable goals, so people don't know what needs to be done,” says Michael Mellin, owner of Dunhill Technical Services LLC, a Reno, Nevada, USA company with an office in Olympia, Washington, USA. Mr. Mellin currently is on contract as a senior project management consultant for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “If [team members] know what the milestones and the goals and the due date [are], they can get things done.”
From the beginning of any project, Mr. Mellin involves his teams in plan development to ensure they have a stake in the outcome. “Ownership in a project is very important,” he says, because it empowers team members.
Mr. Mellin starts off by looking at job descriptions that match the project's needs, then delegates responsibility accordingly. He's also careful to attribute accomplishments to the group as a whole, whenever possible, so as not to alienate any team members.
Still, team members should also know what's expected of them as individuals. When it comes to team members’ behavior, no detail is too insignificant for Rajiv Sharma, a project manager at HCL Technologies Ltd., a New Delhi, India-based IT services provider. Mr. Sharma starts every project by establishing practices such as turning off cell phones in meetings and allowing only one person to speak at a time.
Five Keys to Mastering Tasks
- Begin with a mental walkthrough of the project.
- Help team members distinguish between problems and issues.
- Closely observe and listen to your team.
- Be diligent about scope creep.
- Encourage team members to share and learn from each other's mistakes.
“Setting the ground rules early on keeps everyone focused from the start,” he says.
The Great Unknown
Keeping team members on task also means preparing them for unforeseen glitches, says David Saunders, engineering team manager at Windsor Engineering Group Ltd., Grenada North, Wellington, New Zealand. Mr. Saunders, who only recently joined Windsor, draws on 30 years of engineering experience in the military, including eight in the U.K. Royal Air Force and two in the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a squadron leader senior engineer.
When Mr. Saunders led a team supporting the integration into service and refurbishment of five airplanes for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the group began by brainstorming about possible obstructions to the project's critical path. Each situation was assigned a number corresponding to its potential impact, which helped team members conceptualize each risk's priority.
Creating a risk register isn't practical for every project, but team members can still prioritize by identifying risks as either problems or issues, Mr. Saunders says. A problem, he says, is an isolated occurrence that can be rectified fairly painlessly. An issue is a more complicated or widespread situation that requires immediate attention. Project teams often err in thinking that obstacles identified as problems are necessarily higher priority than those identified as issues. “It is in fact the other way around and this is the first lesson I give when teaching staff about risk analysis,” he says.
Mr. Saunders has found team members appreciate such clear direction.
“As a project manager, you've got to be prepared to coach people on how you want it to be done,” he says, and not only when it comes to deadlines and problems. For example, when a team member was unfamiliar with a software program, Mr. Saunders took the time to show him how the program worked. It was a simple action, but it demonstrated he was invested in even the small details and wanted to help the employee stay on track.
Another way to keep team members on schedule is by being a good listener. When staffers get stressed out, they can become unfocused and make rash decisions. So Mr. Saunders allows himself to be a sounding board when his team needs to vent frustrations. “It shows you're approachable and willing to understand what the problems are,” he says.
Sometimes this requires helping with personal issues, too. “One of my team members had a family problem and that was the reason for his below-par performance for some time,” says Mr. Sharma. “We discussed the problem and tried helping him in coping well with the tough situation. Later he [was] rated my star performer.”
Building this kind of relationship creates a trust that allows leadership to be more accepted, Mr. Sharma says. “This definitely gives [the] team member a sense of a cohesive team where everybody is being taken care of,” he says.
Power of the Collective
John D. Maloch, managing director of Singapore-based Catalyst Project Solutions Pte. Ltd., draws on his team's collective experiences. Creation of a lessons-learned document bookends all projects—starting with studying what was learned in previous efforts and ending with the team recording its own experiences.
The learning process happens through observation, too. Team members can pick up tips just sitting in on a meeting when their peers are being drilled on why a project is late, for example.
The goal is to understand why a project is off track and how to rectify the situation, not to embarrass anyone. It's as much a learning tool for observers as it is for the team member being questioned.
Mr. Maloch says having an engaged team makes every aspect of a project, particularly surmounting problems and issues, a learning experience. And establishing solid communication and team planning keeps everyone on track from the beginning.
Tara Remiasz is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
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