Avoiding Chaos at Light Speed

Managing multiple Project Server instances over the years has taught me that Project Management tools amplify your project process and project communications effectiveness. If your process and communication effectiveness is good, a tool will make this situation better. If there’s a communications issue or process breakdown, a tool will create “chaos at light speed”, amplifying the underlying problem.

The first step of any Project Server or Project Online implementation is to review your current communication and process framework. Using a question-centric approach like our Effective Simplicity™ approach can help guide you away from potential communication gaps and issues.

Projects are Conversations

Projects have been around for as long as humans have worked together to achieve common goals. They weren’t called projects at that time as most interactions were face to face.  The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Feeding the tribe, fighting off invaders or building shelter for the family were a form of projects.

The efforts grew in size as did the number of people involved, as time passed. The need to capture the conversation between all parties became more critical. Project plans were born as a technique to keep track of the overall conversation. Thus, project plans represent the latest state of the conversation between everyone involved with the project.

The diagram below is a simplified representation of the ongoing conversations related to just one project.

Project Communications

Effective Conversations Require Commonalities

Projects represent a formal conversation that is a temporary reorganization of your work social network. There are some requirements for this conversation to happen effectively.

  • Common language
  • Defined information outcomes
  • Information cadence
  • Defined audience

Notice, there is no mention of common approach. Having a single approach for all projects is a bit like having the same logic for all software. It just doesn’t work as business needs vary. Rather, the touch points between projects should be common, allowing project plans to be customized for the given business problem but still able to share information across the portfolio.

Common Language

Common language implies that the terms being used have the same meaning across the organization. If Marketing, Customer Support and IT are using different terms for the same concept or the same terms for different concepts, a conversation breakdown is imminent. For example, a Go Live date may mean the date that the software is placed into production by IT. However, Customer Support views the Go Live as the first date in which they can start generating tickets. As these are different events, unnecessary confusion with external stakeholders is bound to occur when communicating Go Live plans.

Detailed Information Outcomes

Defined information outcomes are the questions you need to answer with the data captured in the tool. The use of questions focuses your thought process on concrete examples that are easy to communicate, easy to define what is in scope and easy to judge value from the outcome.

For example, you’ve defined an Executive audience who have the following three questions.

  • What is the total project investment for this fiscal year for each of the CEO’s strategic initiatives?
  • Which quarter will key value propositions by CEO strategic initiative be realized?
  • What is overall variance trend of our project investment from original plan?

For each of these questions, you can discuss the desired outcome with the target audience, allowing the definition of clear and concise data to be collected to answer the question. It’s also easier to track progress on the question rather than attempting to ascertain progress from a list of functional configuration steps. Questions also help drive clear implementation requirements. Once these requirements are gathered and tracked according to each question, you can make more intelligent adjustments to overall scope by excluding questions rather than blindly cutting tool scope.

To drill down, the first question will require the scheduling of project costs and assignment of project contribution to strategic initiatives. The scheduling of project costs, which can be done using Project’s cost resources, can be a significant training effort for PMs new to cost scheduling. Using the drivers in Project’s Portfolio Management functions can capture the strategic initiative contribution. Portfolio Management functionality requires good schedule and cost data in order to be effective. This may represent a larger implementation effort than you are able to take on initially. Ultimately, you can do both but now you have a clearer picture of the impact.

Information Cadence

If you’ve ever been in a conversation with your significant other and had your mind drift, you quickly discovered how  a lack of timely information can lead to a serious issue. Information cadence within the organization is about ensuring that the right data is maintained and available on a regular interval. For some organizations, that means projects are updated weekly on Fridays. For others, a monthly cadence is more appropriate. Setting an information cadence expectation ensures that everyone is listening for the same information at the same time.

For example, one client has all updates made by Friday evening as standard reports are generated on Monday morning for the project review meetings that begin on Monday afternoon. The cadence ensures these meetings have the latest information.

Defined audience

Within the project, the importance and significance of a member’s role changes over the life of the project as information needs change to achieve work.

Tools such as RACI attempt to model the project’s social interactions. Communication plans also attempt to do this, but from a different perspective. However, RACI, communication plans and other tools of that sort represent a one-time look at how the project members and stakeholders interact. These models fall down as soon as the project starts and reality takes over.

The question-centric approach maps the audience to the question, enabling you to easily monitor and manage the needs over time. If the question mix changes for a given audience, it is easy to gauge the impact and required work.

Starting Well Prevents Later Issues

Starting your project management system design, using a question-centric approach, will help you avoid later issues by ensuring you are meeting the most important needs of your audience. Clear definition of audiences and questions facilitates clear communication of value propositions. The questions also enable clear prioritization and scope control. Tool configuration becomes a means of supporting a conversation rather than being a driver of conversations. Within this framework, the result will be a much leaner Project Server implementation.

Want to know more about the Effective Simplicity™ approach? Join our community to find out about upcoming events.

What’s In Your Notebook?

A recent question on note-taking tools in the Project Managers LinkedIn group sparked quite a response.  The discussion got me thinking.  Do we ever treat note-taking as a corporate capability and are there business advantages to doing so?

Collaboration is one of those overhead tasks that is not tracked, though everyone is expected to do it. According to McKinsey and IDC, the average worker spends nearly 60 percent of their week reading email, finding information and collaborating with co-workers and other parties. That’s 24 hours of your work week!

Any reduction in collaboration time will gain the organization more time for other high value-add activities like projects. The key is to improve the situation with the smallest and simplest change possible by following the principles of Effective Simplicity™.  Effective Simplicity™ is about focusing on doing a few core actions in your organization well; those that yield the biggest organizational benefit. It’s upon this operational base that competitive advantages and real changes are built.

Today’s hot discussions are all about Enterprise Social and Collaboration, with vendors falling all over themselves to sell you the next tool.  However, there’s little energy spent on the original collaboration tool– note-taking. Why is that? Many organizations have mountains of data locked away in paper notebooks that people may refer to once and then discard. Project teams reinvent the wheel with new efforts as they have no awareness of previous discussions or access to notes on key topics.

Note-taking is one of the primary starting points of collaboration.  Let’s take a look at note taking as an opportunity to streamline data capture and information dissemination.

In this article we’ll focus on the information needs of a project team using tools you likely already have in-house. In particular, we’ll showcase the use of Microsoft technology, but the concepts may also be applied to other software platforms as well. The intent is to show how minimal tweaking of a common process can result in significant savings in an effort to collect and distribute information in a productive manner.

Why Do We Take Notes?

People take notes generally for two major reasons: capture of needed actions and capture of information for reference.  Notes taken for reference are important because according to the study above, we spend six hours a week looking for information that helps us be more organized and make decisions. Notes captured for collecting and distributing information and tasks to other members of the team and other stakeholders are equally important because they help us prioritize, assign, baseline, and just plain old communicate using a concrete method. Given this central role in collaboration, could this be a nugget to be leveraged and turned into productivity gold?  Maybe you are also shocked that it receives so little attention?

What Do We Do with the Notes?

In an organization using cutting edge, technology, the notes we place in a central knowledgebase are just a search away. Sounds wonderful does it? The reality for most organizations is that we simply aren’t there yet.  If you are still buying cases of paper pads every month and you look cross-eyed at someone who brings a computer to a meeting, you are at the beginning of this journey to a new way of working.

Notes should be all about capturing data from various perspectives and allowing analysis to make them clear and accessible to the rest of the organization. The challenge with taking paper notes is that you incur two taxes. The first is a “Time Tax”, that is, how long it is before the notes become available. In many cases, the answer is never  because the information is locked away in a long forgotten notepad under your desk. If you remember to communicate the contents,  a “Transcription Tax” is incurred to get the requisite data in electronic format. Then likely, it is emailed and only available in the inboxes of those who received the email.  This is just slightly better than a notepad under your desk.

So What Can We Do About This?

Let the Organization Know What Information is Important to Capture

To clarify, let’s take the first step by considering three sections for getting the most out of note-taking.

What constitutes great notes?

  • Actions
  • Awareness
  • Other Reference

Actions include items such as to do items for yourself and others and information gathering for prioritizing.  These items are typically very immediate in nature and aren’t put in the formal project plan.

Awareness items are data elements gathered to assist with decision-making and action-taking. These items include dependencies for current work, decision recording and alternatives considered and rejected and upcoming events which may require interaction from the team.

Lastly, there are reference items. A recent study by McKinsey showed that an average of 19% of our work week is spent searching for relevant information. Reducing the effort for this task by 30 minutes per week will give back a person-week of capacity to the company for each employee impacted.  As you know, finding information is a serious drain on productivity.

As an example from one particular project, regularly printed electronic copies of project-related invoices, trouble tickets and license agreements were placed into OneNote to provide one place to search for these items.

Pick a Note Taking Method That Fits the Organizational Culture

The second step is to decide what tools capture notes easily. If you look around the room in a meeting, what do you see? iPads? Notebook computers? Paper and pencil? Depending on the current cultural norm in your organization, you have choices.

I Love the Smell of Fresh Paper in the Morning

If your organization is paper-centric, you might consider looking at technologies like LiveScribe 3 or Capturx. Both allow you to write using a special pen and the notes can be converted over to OneNote or other repositories. This allows individuals to continue taking notes in the format with which they are familiar but also provides a way to capture the information electronically to distribute in a number of ways, reducing both Time and Transcription taxes.  Note, these products are still early in the product adoption lifecycle and prices reflect that reality.

Moving to a more consistent manner of capturing and disseminating notes will require a conversation with meeting leaders about how long you have to transcribe notes and where to put the electronic transcriptions. Setting an organizational expectation will encourage adherence to the community agreement.

Time also impacts the quality of notes.  Longer time leads to data loss. One former client decided to reserve the last 10 minutes of a meeting to finalize the notes and transcribe them into email. The idea– capture information while it is still fresh in the mind of the note taker and get them locked.  This expectation helped stress the importance of capturing meeting notes to the organization and assisted people in adopting the habit.

Paper? We Don’t Need No Stinking Paper

There are also many electronic tools available for gathering notes. OneNote, a free alternative from Microsoft and Evernote, offer many data capture features that allow access to the data from any device. They both offer cloud based storage which keeps you from losing data in the event of a theft or corruption of your device.  Lastly, they both support third party applications, which enables the applications to integrate easily with other solutions. Our technical blog,  http://aboutmsproject.com/, will have a series for Administrators on how to implement a OneNote and SharePoint based solution for sharing notes.

Electronic tools have an advantage in that once you are done typing, the notes are mostly done. However, the organizational expectation that notes will be taken and distributed still needs to be set. Otherwise, you will get inconsistent information which will increase information search time. My personal experience has shown that setting a few clear expectations gives adoption a much better chance than a Licensing document approach to implementation.

Here’s a real world example of meeting note guidelines.

  • Always take meeting notes.
  • Include the agenda and who attended
  • Post the notes within four hours of when they are taken.
  • Capture actions, awareness items and any reference information relevant to the project
  • Put the notes here: [Provide the location]

This list has been a great springboard for new behavior.  By communicating to everyone that notes were expected within the same day and that certain bits of information, like an agenda, attendees, actions, awareness items and reference items should be in them, the organization was able to adopt the new process.  Of course, time must be allocated for this activity.  Also, a location was provided to ensure there was no excuse for “not knowing.”

As a PM, the other technique I used was to refer to the meeting notes when we had status meetings. If you didn’t do your notes in a timely fashion, your peers would let you know this outcome wasn’t acceptable.

Adopt a Consistent Manner to Distribute Notes

The final decision is how to best distribute either the notes themselves or notification that notes were posted.  Picking a narrow set of options makes it easier for people to develop the habit of both sending and expecting notes.  The problem really comes down to using multiple delivery channels creates challenges for the reader to consistently find the information. If you find yourself having this sort of internal dialog, “Did I get that in email or is it in Yammer or did he put that on the Team Site,” you may have a dissemination choice problem. Reducing the options to an agreed upon select few will reduce search time.

Small Changes Can Have Large Impacts

Who knew note-taking could affect so much?  Give these recommendations with your team.  Making three simple changes in your processes can help get your team and organization get back valuable time.

If you need further examples to substantiate taking action or would like to speak to someone that has tried similar techniques, contact us via this Join our Community link and indicate your interest.  Tumble Road believes in knowledge sharing that helps the overall community.  We’ll be glad to help get you to that day when you can search the Corporate Knowledgebase for all of the information you need for your job.