Collaborative Project Management

As project managers, we are quite comfortable working in our own space and keeping abreast of the various projects that fall within our scope. Managing resources, working with milestones and timelines, monitoring tasks and so forth are all common aspects of the day-to-day duties of anyone within the project management space.

More junior project managers will often be tasked with dealing with projects that are limited in scope and generally self-contained. However, as one matures within the project management realm, projects will become more complex, with various inter-dependencies, shared resource pools and other external factors. Invariably, the notion of either being responsible for or being part of a broader ‘program’ is something that the project manager will likely have to contend with.

With that notion in mind, the project manager is going to have to think outside the box and be mindful of not only his/her own key deliverable and timelines, but also those of other projects that are part of the broader effort. A great example of when such an occurrance is frequent is in the automotive industry, whereby various teams are responsible for specific portions of a fully functioning deliverable (a car or truck). Project managers may also overlap in such cases with other deliverables (eg. a common audio system used in different brands) and as such, have many inter-dependencies to contend with.

With the above being stated, what are some of the key techniques that one can utilize to ensure all project managers are functioning in sync with one another and that the overall program is moving along smoothly?

Regular Project Manager Communication

Whether this is spear-headed by the program manager responsible for over-arching program or is something that the project manager’s themselves take up, it is imperative that consistent communication channels remain open and that all the project managers regularly perform dialog exchanges and status updates between each other. In many cases, utilizing tools can greatly assist in ensuring that this dialog exchange can be performed efficiently. Regardless of the mechanism, these communication channels must stay open and engaged at all times. When considering a large program, inter-dependencies can be one of the trickiest attributes to contend with when functioning in parallel. Often times, a specific portion of one project may have a dependency on another and the timing of those dependencies can easily cause the overall program to derail if they are not handled effectively.

Uniform Usage of Tools & Metrics

Every project manager worth their salt will likely utilize some tools to perform their day-to-day duties. Additionally, these tools likely help the project manager derive the metrics and the primary KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that they use to ensure their project is hitting on all eight cylinders.

In a collaborative environment with multiple projects functioning in unison, it is of utmost important for the project managers to be working lock, stop and barrel with the same set of tools and metrics. Deviation from specific tools or inconsistencies in KPIs are a sure-fire way to lead to confusion, thereby increasing the likelihood of something slipping through the cracks or a problem manifesting that should have been spotted and dealt with earlier.

The usage of standards (processes) is also important in this context as it will make alignment between timelines and key milestones more easy to classify and monitor.

Tracking Dependencies

As alluded to earlier, one of the key attributes of a broader program consisting of multiple projects is the fact that dependencies exist and must be monitored. In many cases, these dependencies will span the various projects, leading to situations where one project’s forward movement in their timeline may be dependent on the completion of a component in another project’s task list. As such, itemizing these dependencies and ensuring they are being tracked is a key component of the success of the overall program.

From the standpoint of visualizing the dependencies, one classic and very effective technique is to utilize a ‘PERT’ chart. PERT is an acronym for ‘Project Evaluation and Review Technique’. Basically, it is a node and line based way of seeing the various portions of an overall project or program that displays the dependencies graphically, making it a very intuitive and easy way to see how things fit together in the aggregate. An example of a PERT chart is shown below:

The key takeaway from a PERT chart is that specific nodes cannot be reached until previous nodes have been accessed. This step-through denotes the various milestones for a project/program and shows how all the key dependencies are inter-related. (Note: For more information on PERT charts and PERT analysis, please access the following posts: The PERT Analysis – Part 1 and The PERT Analysis – Part 2)

Implement a Planning Framework

A final consideration for an effective collaborative project management strategy is to leverage and implement a planning framework for the aggregate program. What this entails is that the project managers (generally leveraging some template) will perform the due diligence of planning their work scopes independently, confirming (through consensus) that the main line requirements have been fulfilled and then assuming direct control and responsibility of their specific projects and constituent sub-projects. An effective planning framework will allow for the project manager’s to function autonomously within their project scope while still maintaining direct lines of communication and status updates to their peers. This will avoid status overload and will allow for easier distribution of workload amongst the different project managers.

The diagram below shows a diagram of a planning framework using the Dixon Integrated model for PMs:

(Source:  Dixon et al., 1990; Hall et al., 1991)

**Conclusions**

Whenever project managers work together, the results can often vary and much of the success or failure of such an effort depend on the planning and collaboration techniques that were instituted up front. Without such an effort, you can often discover that you end up with various boats paddling in separate directions without any idea of what the other boats are doing. This can lead to severe problems and outright failure of a program if steps are not taken to get the project managers working in unison. Some of the aforementioned techniques can help guide this effort and ensure that the project manager’s understand that the success or failure of their specific area of scope is very tightly interrelated to other projects working in parallel. This understanding, realized up front, is of imperative importance.

The Efficient Project Manager

Anyone who has operated in an industry that has various forms of project management within it (which would be virtually ALL!), can certainly attest to the following fact: not all project managers are created equal.

Like any other job, project managers are people. And in that sense, they carry some of the same potential flaws that exist within all of us. They also come from varied backgrounds and experience levels which can lead to just as many varied project management styles. While project management is meant to be a more ‘generic’ and portable profession, it stands to reason that certain ways of doing things in one area of business may not always be as portable (or even well received) in other areas.

What is most paramount from the standpoint of being a ‘good’ project manager can probably be summarized by the following two key attributes: efficiency and adaptability. Being ‘efficient’ means spending your time in the most effective manner, minimizing work overload while maximizing work output. Being adaptable means not entering into every scenario with the same exact frameworks or preconceived notions. That means being receptive to varying company or team processes and cultures and working to achieve the same goals utilizing different tools and techniques in your arsenal as needed.

Maintain Constant Engagement

As a project manager, it is imperative that you maintain open and consistent communication channels with not only the project team, but the key stakeholders as well. Ensuring that they are kept in the loop pertaining to key updates and any potential changes to the project’s timeline or scope attributes is extremely crucial. Always make yourself available for questions or discussions pertaining to relevant project topics and provide responses in a timely manner.

Often times, project managers may have complacency set in. And as such, they spend less time on engagement or direct line communications, often relegating themselves to infrequent and inconsistent email updates on a project. Unfortunately, once the project manager becomes complacent, the stakeholders may also become disinterested in the project itself. Which could lead to situations where resources are pulled off your project and placed into other more ‘deserving’ or ‘active’ projects. As such, avoid project complacency at all times and try to be as consistent with your status updates as possible. Maintain regular meetings even in situations where status may be sparse or the project is in a slow phase.

Utilize Effective Project Monitoring Techniques

Every project will have specific KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and various metrics associated with it. The type and nature of these metrics can be varied. Regardless, it is extremely crucial that the project manager stay on top of key project attributes. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, complacency can easily set in, especially if a project appears to be moving along smoothly. Project managers will often get into a complacency trap and begin to become a little more lackadaisical when it comes to monitoring their project. And its in these circumstances where unexpected problems arise that could (and should) have been spotted and dealt with earlier.

The most efficient way to ensure project health is to set up your key metrics monitoring and display mechanisms at the project’s outset. If this is done properly from the get go, there will be a much higher likelihood that any issues that arise will be easily spotted. One solid way of achieving this is to set up a project dashboard that monitors specific KPIs and has alerts in place for when things begin to move out of range.

Avoid Micromanagement at All Costs

If one conducts a survey of various individuals within a corporation or any similar entity and polls them to state a key frustration point they have to contend with, one will invariably discover that ‘micro management’ will often exist high on that list.

Anyone responsible for a group of people or a project with resources has an almost maternal imperative that kicks in. And this imperative will often lead to situations of scrutiny and ‘looking over the shoulder’ of specific individuals to see how they are progressing.

Now as indicated earlier, not all project managers are created equal. And it stands to reason that not all resources are created equally either. Some are diligent and provide status in a timely manner, while others require repeated ‘gentle’ reminders. The problem that can manifest is that the project manager, in attempting to deal with those that may need more observation than others will often treat the entire project team with a broad brush, effectively micromanaging the team as a whole. And this can lead to situations that lead to repeated instances of ‘nagging’ directed at not only those that may need it, but at everyone as a whole. And what this often does is foster a scenario of distrust, stemming from frustration from those individuals that feel they are being unnecessarily targeted when they are in fact, not the offenders.

However, regardless of the circumstance, micromanagement is a bad idea across the board. It will lead to feelings of distrust between the project manager and the project team and will reduce the likelihood of team cohesiveness. The best way to approach this problem is to recognize that if one is resorting to micromanagement, this is a management failure, not a resource failure.

Conduct Yourself Professionally

Project managers are only human. Which means they have human emotions, as does everyone else. Regardless, a project manager cannot allow personal emotion to creep into project management situations. Whether it be stress induced from the project itself or some external factor, it is imperative that the project manager keeps a level head when dealing with the project, its team and its stakeholders. Here are a few key ‘don’ts’ from the standpoint of maintaining professionalism in the workplace:

  1. Don’t panic – If you start showing cracks in your armor when a problem manifests itself with the project, that distress will quickly spread like a virus. Regardless of how dire things appear, maintain your composure and show leadership. If you stay calm, the members of the project team will likely do so as well.
  2. Don’t flip out – If a resource working on your project performs a mistake, regardless of circumstance, it is of utmost important that the project manager does not show anger or contempt for that individual. Rather than focusing on the ‘who did this?’ pertaining to the problem, focus on the ‘how do we fix it?’. Problems and mistakes happen, and people who perform these mistakes often feel bad enough as it is. At those points, they need understanding and reassurance, not rage or condemnation.
  3. Don’t take things personally – On occasion, a situation may arise where someone (or something) causes you distress. Sometimes its someone making a comment about the way things are progressing or how you are handling the project, or sometimes its a shift in company direction. Whatever the case, remember: it’s just a job. It’s nothing personal. Do not take umbrage in situations where you think your feelings or reputation may have been hurt, especially in cases where someone is offering you a suggestion or providing constructive criticism. It is not easy being told something you are doing may not be working, but in most cases, the individual is actually trying to be helpful. Irrespective of all else, recognize that you are not infallible and there may be cases where you can improve. So use those pieces of feedback or situations as a learning experience, not interpreted as a personal attack.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

There exists numerous (too many to count really) technological resources at your disposal. Computer software, online forums and blogs, collaborative groups, and so forth. Use all these in your arsenal. Anything that can be done to reduce the overhead of your day-to-day tasks and make your own work environment easier to maintain should be utilized. Many project managers will fall into antiquated and often inefficient ways of doing things. Even in cases where they are using modern software, they are not always familiar enough with all its capabilities to realize how to improve upon their own efficiencies. If you are using software to your advantage, ensure you are as well versed in it as you possibly can be. Take additional learning annex courses for those software solutions or perform self-study as needed. You may be surprised to discover a few techniques and tools within these software packages will make your life suddenly a lot easier.

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