Annoying your colleagues is something of a hazard for project managers, made even harder during a global pandemic where everyone is working from home and juggling work and home responsibilities.
I am a bit of an over-thinker, so one thing I can find challenging right now is knowing whether I am checking in with people enough or too much, or setting meetings unnecessarily. My colleagues probably don’t all agree on whether I am getting this balance right, because (a) I am not always, and (b) people have different personalities, working requirements and working styles and will never agree on whether a meeting could have been an email.
So, I keep the following in mind to keep myself on track.
Know what people are dealing with
In the “old days” (pre-March!) anyone working from home generally had to ensure working-hours availability and coverage of childcare, but the current era for now is different. People are supervising their kids’ remote learning, sharing office space with spouses or housemates, running errands for parents or neighbours, and worrying about a global pandemic.
Respect people’s availability
At project inception or when work kicks off, have an open team discussion or one-on-ones to ascertain everyone’s available times and not-available times… and understand that this is open to change. I encourage people to block out their calendars for times they are not available, but I also think people may be reluctant to do this, if their unavailable times are not “office friendly” and they might worry how they will be perceived. As firm-wide remote work becomes more normalised (and as current economic worries subside), I hope these worries recede, but for now I think we just have to accept them and work with things as they are. Keep note of anyone’s unavailable times in your own records whether that’s sticky notes, notebook or planning chart, and schedule with these in mind.
Set clear roles and team expectations
Make sure allocated work is clear, has been accepted and agreed by the person who will be doing it, and that they know what they have to do. The PM should not just be writing the work breakdown schedule and assigning tasks; the team as a whole should be involved in considering the requirements and what it will take to deliver them. The PM or a BA might create the WBS and/or user stories but the person who will work on each item must have input into WHAT and control into HOW it gets done.
No one is expert at estimations – in fact we are hilariously bad at it – but agree on an estimation anyway. Hold people accountable not for meeting every estimation, but for working on things when they say they will (or letting you know if they can’t) and for keeping the team and task updated.
Be fair with estimations
Don’t hold people accountable for high-level estimations as if they were promises. Don’t treat estimations as elastic with the team and as concrete with the management. That’s a sure way to lose trust and to reinforce everyone’s worst idea of what a project manager does.
Be honest about estimations and represent them as what they are. Early, high-level estimations will naturally change as more becomes known, and your project plan needs to account for this and be honest about it. Do not pad out estimations – e.g. “just double/triple what the developer says”. This doesn’t work, because (a) you end up with a project timeline three times as long as anyone wants to accept (which will still be inaccurate!) and (b) you lose trust because you are not giving anyone honest information.
Make time to familiarise everyone with new channels and platforms
I recently managed a project where I assumed (always bad!) that everyone was familiar with and had full access to our project board, and would update their cards. In our initial meeting I brought up the board and said something like “so, you know, everyone update your tickets as you work on them, blah blah blah…” and sent round the link. Everyone politely listened, accepted the link, and it wasn’t until two weeks later that one of the team told me they had no access to the board and couldn’t update tickets. And I had been wondering (without asking) why I was the only one updating tickets…
If your company is like most companies these days, you are likely working across multiple platforms and communication channels. That’s not changing anytime soon, but take the time to agree on one (set of) platform(s) for the project and make sure everyone knows how to use them. Spend time one on one with each team member who needs it, to learn the systems. Reinforce by using the agreed channels for chat, updates and project tracking. Include links in meeting planners.
Respect your team’s time
- Set the minimum number of meetings.
- But do have regular meetings to track progress and come together as a team. Depending on the type and stage of the project this could be fortnightly, weekly, twice a week or even daily. If there is no need for a meeting, don’t have it – but be aware that some people may be waiting on the meeting to ask questions or provide an update, even if you think there is nothing new. I always ask before cancelling a meeting.
- Keep meetings short.
- Give notice. As people are usually only working part-time on your project and have other work they need to prioritise day to day, try to give 1-2 days’ notice for new meetings. That’s not always possible, but it usually is.
- Avoid cancelling or rebooking meetings, especially at the last minute. It’s not always possible, but it usually is.
- Turn up on time for the meetings.
- Stick to the scheduled time.
- Have a clear point to the meeting and finish up with a summary and clear action points.
The project manager “corrals” the work, tracks progress and reports to the sponsors and management, yes. But the project manager is also a facilitator. As PM, it is your responsibility to ensure that everyone has what they need to get their part done. You need to be available to help in whatever way is necessary, whether that is answering questions, resolving technical issues, organising follow-ups or side-work, or assisting with ‘spike’ work as that comes up.
I keep my own calendar updated for when I will be offline and I am happy to change my offline time (unless I have an appointment or commitment I can’t move). I keep my chat channels open and I let everyone know they can contact me any time I am online. When someone asks for my help, I make every effort to be available as quickly as possible, and to set aside the time that I’ll need to give them what they need.
This is something I am not always good at, but I do notice the miraculous improvement in outcomes when my communication improves. Some things PMs should be clear about with their teams are:
- project purpose and context
- task purpose
- who is doing what and by when
- impact of delays – e.g., cost; impact on other projects; risk of project being stopped
- celebration of milestones achieved, hurdles overcome, issues resolved
Your team probably doesn’t read your project status reports which, let’s face it, are probably designed foremost for sponsors and management teams.
A successful project delivery leader I work with sends out a daily email blast that includes some fun stuff and the most relevant project updates. Something like this, with links to dashboards or status reports for anyone who wants more detailed information, is very effective.
Ask questions. Ask for opinions and feedback. Listen to it. Accept it. Be open to new information and unpleasant or inconvenient developments. Be available and open to updates anytime. Give people room to suggest alternatives, air their thoughts, worry or vent (within reason and without derailing a group chat for example). Take action where needed or make time for further discussion.
With all these in mind, along with your existing skills as a facilitator, communicator, team member and human being, I am sure you will be successful in annoying your colleagues just that little bit less than they expect from a project manager. 😉