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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's The People, Stupid

The life of a project manager can be hectic and stressful. When the pressure is on, the project schedule can be the driving force behind everything you do.  Making sure that team members complete tasks on schedule can become the sole focus of your day. At specific times in the project lifecycle, this task-oriented approach to project management is necessary. For example, a couple of weeks before the end of the project when there are still a few bugs to work out and you are concerned about the team’s ability to get everything completed on time, it is good to be in task-oriented mode for a couple of weeks. At other times during the project lifecycle, you should be focused on the people first. Remember, it is the people that are working on the tasks. The tasks cannot complete themselves. If you take care of the people, they will take care of the tasks. They will complete the tasks in much more innovative, creative and productive way when the focus is on them. A happy team is a productive team.

Many project managers focus way too much on task management. This task-oriented approach is not surprising to me but its cause might be surprising to you. 

In the last 10 years or so, project management has come a long way.  It is no longer just a job, it is a profession. Project management certifications, such as PMI’s, Project Management Professional (PMP)®, and Office of Government Commerce (OGC) Prince2®, bring consistency, structure and standard terminology to project management.  These certifications are based on process frameworks described in PMI’s PMBOK®, and OGC’s PRINCE2® publications. Universities and colleges offer courses, qualifications and degrees in project management.  This focus on education, structure and discipline in project management has transformed it into a desirable and respectable profession. This is fantastic – especially for the project managers who started their careers pre-PM certifications. The introduction of certifications validated project management as a true profession. It meant that many seasoned project managers had to study for those certifications despite their years of experience but it was a fairly small price to pay for what it did for the profession.

So I have established that certifications and qualifications are good.  So where is the problem? The problem is that the certifications are based on processes and best practices. It puts structure around the completion of tasks and improves task management processes. What it doesn’t include, is how to be a project manager. The management of a project team includes a lot of non-task related work. Managing a team day-to-day includes a lot of non-task-oriented activities. These include, problem solving, managing conflicts, minimizing politics, evaluating performance, getting to know team members, growth and development, career planning, and making work fun. Where the process frameworks provide a blank canvas on which to build your project, the art of project management is what creates a project masterpiece on that canvas. It gives your project value, color, interest, and excitement. Your masterpiece is a result of the combination of talents, skills, creativity, innovation, ambition and personalities on your team.  If, as a project manager, the only thing you know how to do is to create is a blank canvas, neither you, nor your team, will be performing anywhere near the level of your capabilities. All that potential is going to waste. Your team will be uninspired and not particularly motivated.

The art of project management goes beyond process frameworks, statistics, and calculations. Those provide the structure. The people provide everything else.

The people are the most important asset you have for completing your project successfully. The people will do the work, solve the problems, and have great ideas. Their actions and contributions, more than anything else, will determine the success of the project. Your actions and contributions to your team members will determine the success of your team.

Managing people and helping them achieve their best, goes beyond knowing what each person is good at. You need to know what interests each of them. Just because someone is good at something, doesn’t mean they like doing it. I am quite good at doing housework but it is the least interesting thing I can imagine having to do. If I have to do it, I do it, and I do it well. I don’t believe in doing a half-baked job. If I am going to spend time doing something, I want to do my best.  Some of your team members may feel the same way about the tasks they are assigned. They may do a great job but if they are doing the same thing over and over again, they will be bored and uninterested. They may have incredible talent and motivation that you are not tapping because you have never bothered to find out what interests them. You should know what each person on your team aspires to being good at.  You should be aware of what each person would like to be doing now, and what ambitions they have for the future. If you don’t know what they aspire to doing in the future, how can you help them get there? It is manager’s responsibility to create an environment where the company is getting what it needs from the people, and the people are getting what they need from the company. You should know and care about who your team members are, not just what they can do.

How do you find out what your team members want? Ask them! Sit down with each person individually and create a career plan. Talk about what they are good at, what they wish they were good at, what types of tasks they enjoy working on, what their plans are for the future, what rewards are most motivating, and what you can do to help them be successful.

When you focus on the tasks first, you are manager pushing your team in the direction you want them go. When you focus on the people first, you are a leader guiding your team and enabling each person to find their own path to success. You are helping them to reach their full potential to make each individual, the team, the manager and the project the most successful it can be!

You can listen to me talking about ways to empower your team members on the October 17th, Talkingwork Podcast Episode 22: Stretching Team Members

Follow me on Twitter @ColleenGarton

Friday, August 19, 2011

To Speak Or To Type? That Is The Question

A few weeks ago I developed an injury in my right hand. It was painful and typing was very uncomfortable. The pain increasingly got worse until I could hardly use my right hand at all. This is not a good state of affairs for a right-handed writer who needs to type for a few hours per day! With deadlines looming and one-handed typing going pretty slowly, I decided I had to find a way to be more productive until I could get the problem solved. I spent half a day doing some research on two things. The first was to find the best speech to text software, and the second was to find a specialist hand doctor to tell me what was wrong with my hand and fix it. I concluded that Dragon Naturally Speaking software would be the best choice to help speed up my writing. I also found a hand specialist who could see me in a couple of weeks. 

I ordered my software, with expedited shipping, and waited eagerly for it to arrive. I knew I'd have to spend some time “training” the software and expected that it might take some time for it to understand my accented pronunciation. Training my Dragon took a lot less time than I had anticipated so I was up and running (talking) very quickly.  I decided to have a little practice before writing anything new. I reread some content I had written a couple of days before to get me into the swing of speaking my words out loud. It is weird to hear your own voice instead of the tap, tap, tap of the keyboard. I found it a bit distracting.  The software was more accurate than I had expected but my British accent did confuse it a little bit. It took some effort to get it to understand my pronunciation of the word “schedule”, which I pronounce “shejual”. This slowed me down a bit as I kept giggling every time I saw the word “schedule” spelt “shedual”. I was seeing my own accent in writing! When I got bored with saying lots of British words to see if I could confuse the Dragon, I returned to trying to get some real work done.  After all, that is why I bought the software. To help me work, not to entertain me!

I was ready to get down to business and start creating some new content. All I had to do was open a new document, start speaking, and the program would do the typing for me. What could be easier than that? Well, as it turned out quite a lot of things could be easier than that! I started speaking to the computer and as I watched it type I realized that my writing bore no resemblance whatsoever to my writing when I'm doing the typing - using my hands. What I was writing didn’t look like my writing style at all. I had to keep going back and re-typing sections (using my left hand) because that seemed to be the only way I could write something that I was happy with.  How could it be that I'm able to type/write rather well but speak/write not so well?  I do a lot of public speaking. I must be capable of speaking what I think.  I know that when I'm in front of a room full of people I have no problem expressing myself.  I spent some time thinking about how I feel when I'm up on stage speaking. I realized that I feel completely differently than when I am speaking to my computer. I feel nervous, excited and full of adrenaline when presenting. I feel relaxed and calm when I am speaking to my Dragon software. It seems that, for me, typing requires calmness and speaking requires adrenaline. I think I should be much more flexible and adaptable than that. I should be able to speak my thoughts as well as I can type them.

I concluded that if I can teach myself to speak what I wish to write, it will make me a much better speaker. I started using the speech to text program as much as I could and, while doing so, I noticed something really interesting.  When I'm speaking to my computer and I need to think, I pause to gather my thoughts, when I am ready I continue. When I'm speaking to real people I tend to use filler words such as "umm", "aahh",  "so", and "you know" to fill the gaps when I need a moment to think. Not once have I used a filler word when I have been speaking to my computer. So, if I can master speak/typing, not only will I become better at “on the spot” expression of my thoughts, I should also become a more fluent and relaxed speaker.  I can teach myself to lose the discomfort with silences that results in me using superfluous filler words during conversations or presentations.

Incidentally, I saw the hand specialist, he gave me a cortisone injection, and my hand got better after a few days – thank goodness! I can now type using both hands again. If I didn’t fully appreciate my ability to type before, I most certainly do now! I will never take that skill for granted. Though I am back to typing mostly using my hands, I am continuing to use the Dragon software for some of my writing.

Despite having a bit of a scare initially and wondering if my hand would have be chopped off or something equally nasty, this experience has turned out to be a very positive one. I am not longer using a new tool to fix a problem. I'm using it to enhance my existing skills to become a better speaker and writer. Even the worst problems you can imagine can turn out to have a positive result as long as you spend some time focusing on what you can gain from the situation.  

The same is true for most less-than-optimal situations. For example, if a major issue is delaying your project, or a key team member has had to take an unexpected leave of absence. Think about what can you do to turn the situation into something positive. Perhaps the project delay will force you to rethink your project processes or schedule, and help you identify some efficiencies that you otherwise would never have looked for. Perhaps losing a key team member will mean that a more junior team member has to step up to learn new skills and take more responsibility. That junior team member may turn out to be a shining star on your team.  Not all bad situations have positive outcomes but if you never look, you’ll never find any!

I am thrilled to be learning new skills and enhancing old ones. Why is it then, that when I am speaking to the computer rather than typing, I feel like I am cheating?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Virtual Relocation Would Be Awesome!

Apologies for having gone quiet for so long!  It has been an interesting and eventful few months.  In February this year I made the decision to relocate from the west coast (California) to the west coast of the east coast (Florida). It was a huge project and, yes, I used Microsoft Project to plan and execute the move. I think I am probably qualified now to write a book about relocating across the country! 

February was spent looking for a new house. March was spent getting ready for the move, April and May were spent working on the new house and getting moved in and unpacked!  The Garton household and the Garton Consulting Group are now located in the Tampa area of Florida in the eastern time zone. 

It is interesting that because much of Garton Consulting Group’s work is performed virtually, the 2400 mile move has had almost zero effect on how we run the business.  If only we could have moved house virtually!

The last few weeks I have been doing a lot of writing. I am working on a new edition for my project management book “Fundamentals of Technology Project Management”. It’s an exciting project. Technology and communication has changed a lot over the last few years.  The world is a very different place than it was when I wrote the first edition of the book.  The art of management doesn’t change much from year to year but the tools we use to manage and communicate change at a very fast pace. The adoption of social media and the availability of virtual “apps” solved some management problems and introduced a few new ones!  I am having fun researching and writing new material and entering the almost hypnotic state that occurs after a few hours of intense writing!

The company that publishes my books is a100% virtual company and has been for a number of years.  When they first went virtual, it was a new and innovative way of working. Their employees live and work in different states and very rarely get to meet each other in person. They have been very successful using the virtual business model.  As a virtual management expert, it seems very appropriate that my books are published by a virtual publishing company!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Virtual Training Is The Path To Success

During the last decade we have seen incredible growth in the adoption of “virtual” in the workplace.  The virtual trend is destined to continue for the next decade and beyond.  In the United States, companies that have not incorporated any telecommuting into the workplace are in the minority.  The virtual growth trend is a global phenomenon that includes, but it is not limited to, offshore outsourcing.

This growth in remote workers means that managers need to be confident and competent managing from a distance.  Unfortunately, virtual management skill-sets have not been increasing at the same rate as virtual management responsibilities. Many organizations do not recognize the need for specialized training in the virtual environment.  There seems to be a misconception that the only real difference between managing locally and managing virtually is the use of a few additional tools.  It is important for managers to understand how to use virtual tools but managing people goes far beyond knowing how to use software programs and phone conferencing systems.

The managers themselves often do not realize that it is their own action, or inaction, that can cause problems with virtual projects or teamwork. It is not the virtual environment that creates the problems but rather the manager’s lack of knowledge and training in virtual management.

It is unfortunate that the lack of expertise in virtual management is leading to under performance, and sometimes failure, of virtual and outsourced projects.  The managers are often struggling to deal with the day-to-day challenges of managing a virtual team and can’t see the early warning signs that things are not progressing to plan. The managers are managing people and issues the way they always have.  Unfortunately, the strategies that work well in a colocated environment often do not work as well virtually. Excellent managers are being transformed into underachieving managers.

 If companies want to succeed in the virtual business world they must give their managers the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. It is very disheartening when a high performing manager takes responsibility for a remote workforce and comes to the realization that he lacks the knowledge and skills he needs.  If he is managing a combination of co-located and virtual team members, and is managing all team members in the same way, problems are bound to arise.

Managers may not have asked for management responsibility of remote workers and may feel that those workers should adapt to how he or she manages.  Perhaps the manager believes that his management “style” has worked well in the past so there is no reason to change it. You can try this approach to virtual management, but I guarantee it is not going to work very well.  It is a manager’s responsibility to manage individual team members in a way that gives them the highest opportunity for success. It is important to be open to adapting and changing to new business models and new ways of working.  If managers are too rigid and set in their ways, what kind of example are they setting to their team members?  The world will continue to progress and change during and beyond our lifetimes. Resistance or uncertainty will not prevent it. In another 20 years, we will be using new tools and techniques, and managing in an environment different from what we have now.  New managers today will be the seasoned managers of tomorrow.  They will be required to adapt and change in years to come; just as today’s seasoned managers are right now.

Many of today’s managers are not resisting change, they are just unsure of what they need to do to embrace it. They are expending a lot of effort trying to be successful in the virtual environment but they lack the knowledge required to get the desired results.

Successful virtual management requires learning a few new skills and learning how to utilize existing skills in a different way. Some of the changes in ”how” things should be done are very subtle and some are less so. A lot of small adjustments can make a huge difference but managers need to know what adjustments to make.

Virtual managers need to learn how to communicate effectively with remote workers and how to manage and measure team member performance. When managing internationally, managers should have some understanding of cultural differences.  Trying to manage employees in India the same way you manage team members in the USA will have disappointing results for all involved.  Expecting team members in the United Kingdom to respond well to the same management style and techniques used for your US team members are likely to result in less than desirable results.

Just a small amount of training in virtual management can go a long way towards making virtual managers more effective.  A comprehensive training program could transform your virtual management team from “good” to “exceptional”.  Why settle for less when your employees have the potential to deliver so much more?

Colleen Garton is a world renowned expert in virtual management. Her company, Garton Consulting Group specializes in training for virtual, global and cross-cultural teams.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is Your Multi-Cultural Organization Truly Bridging the Cultural Divide?

Anyone working for a mid to large sized company these days is most likely working in a multi-cultural environment.  This is true for workers located in a corporate office as well as for those working virtually.  As companies have evolved into buying, selling, and operating internationally, their workforces have evolved too.  Work colleagues are drawn from various cultural backgrounds, multiple nationalities, and different countries.

Whether the employees from diverse cultures and nationalities work in the same location, or are geographically dispersed, everyone working as part of that company or team is working in a multi-cultural environment. Whether they realize it or not!

What is interesting, is that many of the employees working in these environments have little knowledge or understanding of the cultural differences that exist between team members.  U.S. employees working for U.S. companies often assume that all employees have a responsibility to adapt to, and adopt, the culture of the organization’s host country. This may seem fair to many but it is an unrealistic and unattainable goal.  People’s cultures don’t change because of where, or for whom, they work. Their fundamental values and beliefs don’t change just because they move to a different country or work for a foreign company.  It is not possible to discard your own culture and adopt another overnight.

A company’s culture is determined by its people. The combination of employees’ cultures and personalities together with the organization’s principles, ethics, rules, regulations, benefits, and work environment(s) all contribute to “company culture”.  So why is there so little acknowledgment and appreciation of the influence of cultural diversity on company culture within most organizations? When cultural diversity is embraced, it enriches, and enhances company culture. When it is merely tolerated, it contributes to negativity and division within the workforce, which will result a rather negative company culture.  If managers, executives and human resources leaders truly understood this, they would take a much more pro-active role in promoting cultural awareness across the ranks.

Whilst most companies have guidelines regarding diversity in the workplace, many of those guidelines are based solely on the law.  Discrimination is illegal in most western countries and discrimination lawsuits can be costly!  I am not suggesting that companies don’t believe that these laws are important. I think that most people value diversity very highly, and truly believe that everyone deserves to be treated equally and fairly. 

What I find interesting is that while employees understand company policy and abide by the rules, many of them have little, or no, true understanding of cultural diversity. This lack of understanding means that team members do not know how to work most effectively in a multi-cultural environment. Often team members divide into “factions” comprised of employees with similar cultural backgrounds. They build rapport, discover commonalities, and develop strong working relationships – and sometimes friendships - with others within their cultural groups. They abide by the rules, communicate, and interact respectfully with people from other cultural groups but don’t “bond” with them in the same way they do with members of their own cultural group.  Why does this happen?  It happens because not discriminating against others is doing the minimum necessary to stay within the law.  Companies should be striving for much more. The success of a company is determined by its people.  The better its people understand, respect and appreciate each other, the more potential for success.

Employees cannot gain an in-depth understanding of cultural differences just by working on a team that has employees from different countries. They learn that there are differences, yes, but these differences are often a source of frustration rather than a source of enrichment.  For example, dealing with language differences can be frustrating and time-consuming. Comprehending differences in business etiquette or the urgency associated with deadlines can be confusing and stressful.  It is likely that you will hear comments such as “I don’t enjoy talking with people from our office in India because I can’t understand what they are saying”, or “People from Japan say “yes” to everything even when they don’t agree with me”, or “I wish the managers in our Brazil office would stop agreeing to deadlines that they know they cannot meet”.

Sound familiar?  I am sure you have heard these types of comments and many others that indicate a high level of frustration working cross-culturally. Perhaps you have even made these types of comments yourself. The people who make these comments are generally not being intentionally discriminatory. They do not intend their words to be personal attacks on individuals. They are just struggling with cultural differences that they have no idea how to manage.  Sadly, over time, these frustrations can fester and increase. Though publicly everyone is polite and abiding by the “value diversity” rules, no-one is really enjoying working together and team morale decreases.  These frustrations are felt on all sides.  The people in India are frustrated that no-one listens to their input. The Japanese are being polite by not disagreeing with you, and therefore not disrespecting you, in the presence of your team and don’t understand why you disrespect them in public. The Brazilians don’t understand why you are always so angry with them when they are doing their best to make everyone happy.  Different cultures; different perspectives.

The problem is not with the people or the cultures. The problem is the lack of expertise in cross-cultural communication. People do not change their national or religious culture because they work for an international company.  Organizations cannot take employees in and turn them into replicas of each other that all think and communicate in the same way.  This is not the Stepford Wives – thank goodness! A culturally diverse organization has incredible value potential.  It contains so many different perspectives of your business, your products, and your customers.  Leveraging this knowledge can give your organization incredible insight into conducting business internationally. You can learn how to communicate more effectively, and how to sell your products and services to a broader audience.

Cultural training for the entire workforce, at all levels of your organization and in all geographical locations, would go a long way towards building respect and understanding between team members. Forget the politically correct rules and regulations about discrimination for a couple of hours, and take the time to really learn about each other.  When you have genuine respect and appreciation for differences, you don’t need to mandate how people behave, or what they say to each other. They will be respectful and non-discriminatory because they want to – not because company policy tells them they have to!  There will still be misunderstandings and frustrations from time to time, but your employees will understand why there is a problem and will be able to work together to resolve it.

Give your workforce the information it needs to understand and appreciate cultural differences and you will create a successful and highly motivated team. Make it fun to learn about the differences and similarities.  Your workforce will figure out to how to use this information its full advantage.  They will learn to make necessary adjustments in the way they communicate and collaborate to increase effectiveness. They will recognize the strengths of each individual and will help each other to maximize on those strengths.  They will no longer make assumptions based on nationality, cultural background, or language skills. You will have a truly multi-cultural organization that leverages the strengths of everyone on the team.

It can be a lot of fun learning about other cultures and traditions. Team leaders should be taking an active role in promoting learning on an ongoing basis. As you learn about others and share information about yourself, you will get a glimpse of how your own culture is viewed through other people’s eyes. Explaining the where, why and how things are done in your own culture gives it a personality that you may not have noticed before. Breaking down the barriers that restrict cross-cultural teamwork and respect benefits everyone in your organization.
Garton Consulting Group specializes in training for virtual, global and cross-cultural teams.