Scrappy Project Management, Part 1

If you’ve led even one major project you are undoubtedly aware of the critical link between communication and success. In spite of the fact that project managers spend more than half of their time in meetings and 70%-90% of their time communicating, communication is cited as the #2 cause of project failure. Even if you have crystal clear goals and metrics of success, chances are that very few people on your extended team share your clarity. Unfortunately, your lovingly prepared project documents and urgent emails are likely skimmed through — or skipped over — by your overworked, deadline-driven team. In order to be heard above the roar of the communication blizzard, you must send a clear and compelling message, repeating yourself frequently.

Welcome to the communication blizzard! We now encounter more information in a single Sunday newspaper than a person in the 17th century encountered in an entire lifetime. On a project of any complexity, the information overload can be downright oppressive.

What project manager doesn’t have a big old stack of email in their in-box, a giant pile of unread documents on their desk, and an incessantly flashing “message waiting” light on their voice mail? Paper information is typically “filed” geologically, heaped layer by layer upon the pile until critical project documents are found somewhere in the Mesozoic era. Email tends to become a reminder of the bottomless pit of action items that awaits us if we ever do get caught up. Faced with an onslaught of undifferentiated information and the impossible task of keeping up with it all, we are forced to make tough choices, prioritize, and flat out ignore much of it as a matter of self-preservation.

Our ability to ignore communication isn’t at all surprising. If 50% of all the phone calls you received were telemarketers, would you even answer the phone? The human brain is forced to screen out about 99,999,960 out of the 10 million bits of information received every second. Only 10 to 40 bits a second are raised to our conscious awareness. The rest bounces around blissfully in the subconscious where it is quickly forgotten, or at worst creates an amorphous, nagging angst. We humans tend to focus on things that matter to us, things that have meaning. It is exceedingly tempting to seek shelter from the communication storm in the proven strategies of avoidance and procrastination. We get tunnel vision, focus on what’s right in front of us, and hope that disaster won’t strike as a result.

This snow-blindness can spell difficulty or even disaster for a project. Some examples of the victims of the project communication avalanche follow.

A critical project document, like the goals and metrics of success, is sent to your core team as an attachment to an email message. You ask for their feedback within three days. The predictable response from a blindingly busy team? None. Nada. Zero. What happened? Chances are, most of them never even clicked on the attachment. A few of those who did may send you valuable input, but most of the feedback will fall into the category of “It looks good to me,” which translates into “I looked at it and didn’t really have time to think much about it” or “I didn’t even open the attachment. Who are you kidding?” These are the Project Goals, the committed schedule, the biggest risks, for Pete’s sake! It’s not like you’re asking them to review the boilerplate of a procurement contract.

Critical project documents are stashed on a shared network location, and those seeking the information are referred there with the glib admonition, “It’s on the shared drive.” I’m all for having shared project folders where the whole team can stash documents and share information. But this is akin to saying that a car is parked somewhere in the city of Tokyo. Unless there’s a bit more specificity, and a well-organized file structure, this phrase is extremely entertaining to those who have actually visited the shared drive. Those in the know roll their eyes in amusement at the suggestion that they could actually find the information they seek without burning up a disproportionate amount of precious time that could otherwise be spent knocking off some other, more pressing task.

You can compensate somewhat for these behaviors by calling even more meetings where you all sit around together and review these documents, but that’s not a viable option for geographically-dispersed teams. And to be honest, even co-located teams can succumb to over-reliance on electronic forms of communication. Rather than taking the time to walk over and have a conversation about an urgent matter, it’s common practice to send an instant message to a teammate who sits only steps away.

Effective Communication

When you think about it, communication is pretty much the only means that we have to lead. While listening is a big part of that, when we do speak, we need to find ways to be heard above the surrounding din. If you want your messages to get through the widespread commotion in most projects, keep it short, keep it relevant, and keep it fun. Poor communication is yet another avoidable cause of project failure. Let’s wipe it out in our lifetime!

The graphic shows a simple example of a communications map. This kind of chart typically takes less than 20 minutes to create, and is more communication planning than most people do for a project. I say it’s 20 minutes well spent.

Overly Simplistic Version of a Communications Map
Scrappy Project Management, Part 1

So how can you get your messages to be “the chosen ones” that pierce the consciousness of your team? Here are a few creative approaches that have been proven effective in real-world projects:

Goals. Condense all of the requirements documents and success criteria into a one-page “Project Success Scorecard.” (See Chapter 2, “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Any Road Will Do.”). At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me reiterate that success means far more than features delivered on time and under-budget.

Plan. Use a simple flow chart program to create a one-page schedule that represents the high-level timeline of the project from start to finish. Although this is extra work for those of us who are using Microsoft Project and other such scheduling software, a simplified map of how the team will get from the start to a glorious finish helps people to keep the big picture in mind without getting lost in the details of a 937-line Gantt chart. For added impact, highlight areas of greatest risk with clip art like skulls and cross bones, ambulances, and little time bombs. This always makes an impression on executives who tend to notice these sorts of decorations. One thing’s for sure, they won’t snooze through presentations.

SCRAPPY TIP: When tracking changes in action item due dates, don’t ever change the original dates. Just strike through the obsolete date and let the list of changed dates grow to the point of embarrassment. When an item accumulates enough changes in the due date, it will eventually be obvious to even the most deliberately obtuse that there is a problem.

Tune in next month for Part 2 of “Scrappy Project Management.”

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