Have you ever run into project management issues? I bet you have. Me, too.
In this post, I have decided to answer questions about project management problems, and sharpen up my writing skills by concisely answering them. You ask a question and I briefly answer it based on my experience. A win-win for you and me.
Would you like to tag along and ask a question? My goal is to answer 100 questions. So far, I have 53… and counting.
#1 – Rodrigo, how to I delegate tasks more effectively?
The short answer is: do your homework before delegating. People think delegating is just sitting down with someone and assigning a task. This may be true for simple tasks, such as can you grab me some files when you go to the first floor? However, whenever there is some more work involved, you need to know specifically what you want to delegate and to whom you want to delegate it to. You will be more successful when you take a minute to identify what needs to be done and assign the work to the best-qualified employee. Also, making people accountable for their deliverables is a good way to avoid having procrastinators on your team.
Here is some more advice on how to delegate effectively…
#2 – Rodrigo, how do I get my emails answered?
There is an ingenious trick I use to get my emails answered. And, interestingly enough, I usually get most of them answered. The trick is simple: Ask only one question per email.
This means sending only one email per topic and breaking down complex requests into simpler requests. In addition, when several people are involved in the discussion, make sure you call out the person you need an answer from. The “Hi, All”, “Hello, Everybody” and “Joe, Mary, Abby and Lucas” type of emails never work.
Finally, when the subject is time sensitive, I always tell them by when I expect the answer. Something like “Could you please respond by Friday 8AM?” goes a long way.
Here is a little more information on getting your emails answered…
#3 – Rodrigo, how do I deal with office politics?
Oh, this is a something difficult. One way or another, you will experience office politics whatever type company you work for. My advice is clear on this: Don’t take part in it.
Playing politics is like playing a game where no one wins. So, don’t play it.
The most effective way to deal with office politics is to be objective and know what you want to get out of your interactions with people. They will therefore value you for the work you do and the results you bring. Discussing irrelevant stuff will not aggregate anything to your career. So, get off the gossip treadmill and focus on getting your work done in the most professional way.
Learn more about how to deal with office politics…
#4 – Rodrigo, how do I deal with underperformers?
Well, this is where you can either shine or die in management. Underperformers is a complete topic in and of itself. However, if I were to say only one thing about, you should treat everyone with respect and understand what each person brings to the table.
Sometimes, underperformance can be a question of someone not believing that the other has the skills do the work. Sometimes, it’s a question of not knowing what that person’s skills are in the first place. Other times, it’s just that the person is not in the right place at the right time.
Regardless, when dealing with an underperformer, you need to trust that person’s competence. Otherwise, it would be better just to let them go. There is nothing worse than dealing with a professional you don’t think will be able to recover professionally. So, you will need to make some tough calls along the way. If you are a true leader, you’ll be able to go beyond that point in time and help the person develop themselves completely. And that is where you will either shine or die in management.
Here is an important lesson I learned when I was dealing with underperformers…
#5 – Rodrigo, how many slides should I have in my PowerPoint presentation?
OK…my answer may not make you happy. You should have the minimum number of slides possible to get your point across. That means your focus should not be on presenting the information, not using PowerPoint as a crutch.
So, instead of having 25 slides in a 60 minute presentation, try having only five.
You can keep the other 20 slides for the end of the presentation as an appendix. If someone asks a very specific question, you can always provide a more detailed explanation. Otherwise, keep it to a minimum and focus on interacting with your audience.
People will thank you for it. Trust me!
#6 – Rodrigo, what should I do if the s***t hits the fan? Excuse my French.
Seriously, this will happen sooner or later in your career. As you gain experience, you will be assigned more complex projects. The more complex the projects, the higher the risks. The higher the risks, the greater the responsibilities. At some point, you will face a crisis or extreme episode. It could be that your new system went into production but nothing works anymore, or your project ran out of budget, or a major issue came up. In essence, you are faced with a HUMONGOUS problem.
It’s at these times when you will see people for who they really are. Take this as a unique opportunity to be that person who has the cool temperament and is keeping things in check. You might be suddenly surrounded by people running around like chickens with their heads cut off. If you keep your cool, you will be the only one who can see things objectively. Also, remember that the sun always rises in the morning and everything passes with time, with better days to come. Take that into consideration.
Learn more about handling crisis…
#7 – Rodrigo, how do I become a better manager?
The best advice I can give you is to never give up. Sorry to break the news, but you’ll never be the “perfect” manager. There is no such a thing. Think of your management career as a path, not a destination. You should strive to improve your skills and do a better job, in whatever area you are in. In essence, the most amazing managers I have ever worked with had two qualities in common: they were down to earth and they were lifelong learners. This had nothing to do with perfection, you see…
Every new project, every new challenge, every new interaction with your team is a way to improve the work you do. Be a constant learner and you will really succeed as a manager.
Here are some advanced management concepts for you.
#8 – Rodrigo, I can’t take this anymore! Should I just quit this unbearable job and start a [name your hobby] business?
Take a deep breath…
Let’s take a walk outside the office.
Nowadays, there is a lot of talk of abandoning everything and starting a creative career, creating a hobby business, leaving cubicle land and travelling around the world…
This is nice. I’ve met people who were able to successfully transition from a career into this adventurous lifestyle. Yes, it is possible. However, I’ve also seen many, many people think they can own a virtual business and travel the world, only to eat humble pie, swallow their egos and go back to their original careers.
Don’t mix your frustration with your boss and the company you work for with impossible career dreams. This is a very dangerous mix. You can still pursue whatever you want in the world, we live in a free society. However, be careful when doing it.
To be successful in any transition, you will need some extraneous planning as well as a viable opportunity. Otherwise, that creative life you aspired to make a living at could be transformed into a salt mining experience.
So, just to be clear, I’m not saying you should stay in a bad job. Contrary to the “transforming your passion into career” marketing, understand that transitioning a career takes a huge effort, and you should not underestimate amount of work to be successful.
Here are some tips on how to avoid burnout…
#9 – Rodrigo, how can I successfully implement a [name a new technology] in a [traditional] environment?
Based on experience, there are two factors that will either make or break implementing a new technology in any environment. The first is how keen is your senior management in regards to supporting this new technology. If your senior manager, director, CIO, doesn’t support the move… Forget it. Things will go downhill very quickly and no one will be willing to spend time investing in revamping your technology.
The second is to what extent you will solve the problem you are facing. Let’s say, your new system will cut everyone’s effort to get things done by half. You’ll see a huge uptake on your implementation progress. However, the other side is also true in the sense that if you are making people’s lives more miserable and adding bureaucracy to an already bureaucratic environment, chances are you’ll struggle to get buy in from your users.
There is also the situation where you are implementing something completely new in the organization that involves a break in paradigm. For example, your team will start using SCRUM or some other flavor of agile methodology in a company that is totally integrated into using a cascade type of development technology. If this change is done internally, in your team only, expect to have some friction when you interact with teams outside your department. In this scenario, expect a lot of work convincing until your new technology (and processes) are adopted in the traditional environment.
One way or the other, focus on having buy in from senior management and in getting results by making people’s lives easier. This will go a long way in you bringing innovation to your environment, regardless how traditional it is.
Learn more about innovation here.
#10 – Rodrigo, should I run mini projects or stick to multi-year projects?
Well, that’s an interesting question.
Let me ask you: Should you buy slices of bread or whole loaves?
It all depends on how many people you are having for breakfast… or, how many trips you want make to the bakery during the week, right?
The logic is simple. If you are dealing with smaller deliverables, stick to simple, mini projects. Dealing with strategic initiatives that are complex, highly relevant and take a long time to be executed? Go for a multi-year project.
Now comes the advanced part… Your main consideration should not be to the side of the projects or how long they should run. It should be focused on the complexity of what you are delivering.
Consider how things fit together from a strategic perspective. Mini projects are like upgrading your servers, revamping your website or creating a new feature in your software, whereas multi-year projects are integrating your software to connect to all banks in the US, totally upgrading your mainframe applications to run on modern technologies or traveling to Mars and back.
Would you take slices of bread or loaves on your trip to mars?
It’s not about the size of the loaf. It’s about what needs to be done. You get the idea…
Click here for more on strategic project management tips.
#11 – Rodrigo, things happen over and over again. How can I deal with recurring issues in my projects?
If you see a pattern of repeating issues occurring in your project, you will probably want to take action on it. However, in reality, you are most likely to experience these issues when your customers start to complain or something goes wrong in your production servers.
I strongly recommend seeking improvement before things completely blow up, meaning that you should focus more on anticipating issues rather than putting out fires.
How do you do that? You keep your eyes wide open.
That miscommunication that happens between your team and the quality assurance team every Friday… you should dig into it and find out more about it.
Those three relevant bugs that never got fixed and went to production… you need to know why that happened and how the ball was dropped.
That internal customer that complains ad infinitum about not getting things on time… maybe it’s time to sit down and review your internal processes.
You get the idea.
To solve these issues, there is no magic bullet. However, if spotted early enough, you can save yourself tons of effort and tons of explaining to upper management. Use a mix of batching similar issues together and setting the right expectations to solve them. You can fix a fair amount of things just by quitting the firefighting mode and planning ahead appropriately.
Keep your eyes open, always…
#12 – Rodrigo, how to I get things right when I’m under huge pressure to “get things done”?
There is one thing you will surely experience as you grow in your management career: pressure.
Well, that’s why they pay you the big bucks. You need to get things done. Also, you need to keep your team focused and motivated. If not, things will start to fall apart.
The best learning moments in my career were exactly when we were under enormous pressure to deliver results. I was lucky to work with some amazing leaders who taught me the way out of the situation.
When you are under a lot of pressure, you need to keep your objectivity. This means not to ask yourself why you are doing this or that and make it clear what you want to get out of the situation.
Essentially, your goal should be finding out what would be the most effective way to do what needs to be done. Forget the office drama, find your destination and go for it.
I know this is difficult, but keeping your cool is a key component in keeping your team’s morale up and maintaining everybody’s sanity. Most importantly, remember, when everything is over and done, you’ll remembered by your actions.
Keep your cool, stop talking to yourself and get the job done.
Click here to hear more about how to manage a crisis at work.
#13 – Rodrigo, why do I end up doing all the work while my team is surfing YouTube?
Hey, do you really trust your team’s competence to do their work? Seriously? I think you should consider changing your attitude as a manager.
Learn to delegate, let them do the work and make them accountable…
… otherwise, look for another job outside management.
Read more about how to delegate here.
#14 – Rodrigo, I’ve just been promoted to management and have no idea where to start. What should I do? Help!!!
There are two very important things you should do.
First, schedule a meeting with your boss. Learn what his objectives are. Learn what’s most important to get done this year and what are the most important considerations you should have when dealing with his projects.
Second, schedule one on ones with each and every person in the team. Ask about their work, be genuinely interested in their work. Ask about their aspirations and what they want to accomplish in life.
Then, you can start your work as a manager.
Learn more about getting promoted here.
#15 – Rodrigo, my director, who happens to sponsor all my projects, has been fired. What should I do now?
Well… how can I nicely say… brace for impact!
There will be changes ahead, for sure. Your goal should be to keep your team working cohesively and be very objective in everything you do.
Understand your value by knowing that you know a lot about the projects you are involved in and you and your team can be instrumental to any new executive who replaces your former boss.
Don’t let office politics take over your conversations. Just don’t play the game. Stay out of any discussions, especially if someone starts blaming your previous boss.
The world changes and your flexibility will prove you are mature enough to wear your management badge.
Keep your cool and look at things strategically.
Watch that film about Captain Sully landing on the Hudson River and note his attitude throughout the entire experience.
… and brace for impact.
Learn more about how to see things the way they are here.
#16 – Rodrigo, what’s the best way to keep track of my project?
No easy answer here, bud. Regardless of what tool you use to track your projects, don’t rely on emails and charts. Talk directly to your team. That’s all I can tell you.
Maybe learning how to avoid over-Excelling, may be able to help you.
#17 – Rodrigo, I’ve seen someone on my team being very hostile and unprofessional to another employee in a meeting today. What should I do?
My lawyers told me not to answer this question. Just kidding… bad joke.
This situation happens in the corporate world. It has never directly happened to anyone I manage, but it happens. Maybe it’s because I never let things to get to a boiling point. Most certainly, I was just lucky.
The things I’ve seen indirectly were conflicts related to people who were very overwhelmed at work. Consider that their reaction was just the tip of the iceberg of what they were experiencing in life.
Once, someone in the company went crazy at another employee during a meeting, shouting at the person to the point of making them cry. We all heard the scene, and we were far away from the meeting room. Since this was in a very strict company, the aggressor was fired the next morning. He was a key professional in the company, but they decided his attitude was not appropriate. Gone!
At another time, many years later, there was an episode where shouting and hitting a table was involved. At that time it was just considered business as usual, part of the company culture. What happened next? People just shrugged their shoulders and moved on with their day. One person who witnessed the entire episode told me, “This was just such and such manager having a bad day. They are famous for making little adults cry.” I was terrified to the depths of my soul to hear that.
I personally don’t like this type of high conflict environment. Some people thrive on it. I find it very unproductive. I didn’t stay there very long. I always nurture a respectful attitude in my team, and with everyone I interact around me. We should be as professional as we can. Mutual respect should be high on everyone’s lists, in my opinion.
Luckily it never happened to me or anyone in my team. This is not legal advice, but if it happens to you or your team, make sure you keep detailed notes, consider mentioning it to a person you trust in the company, try reporting to senior management and reaching out to Human Resources.
Sometimes work is not a walk in the park. Always reach out to people when you need help and are not sure what to do.
#18 – Rodrigo, I’ve been assigned to a huge new project. What should I do first?
First things first, take a deep breath.
Besides the usual preparatory meetings and alignment sessions with your immediate manager, you should step back for a moment and think strategically about your project.
When dealing with something really big, you’ll quickly realize that you don’t have all the resources you need to get job done. In fact, you never do. In my entire career, I haven’t ever heard of at least one large project that had that was needed to get the job properly done.
There is a fair amount of objectivity required under these circumstances. Focus on what you need to deliver and leave the fluffy discussions for later.
In short, focus on identifying the important pieces of the puzzle and stop thinking about how many pieces the puzzle has. Focus and objectivity will save you from lots of sleepless nights. Trust me.
#19 – Rodrigo, as a manager, is there anything I should never, ever, delegate ?
There are a few things I never delegate. However, there is one that is, by far, at the top of my list: Hiring new people.
Hiring is one of the most important and consequential things you can do for your team. Hiring the right person can have amazingly positive effects in terms of productivity and organizational climate.
Hiring the wrong person can be disastrous, not only for your team, but also for the person who is hired. A bad hire can ruin your project schedule and cause you a great deal of headaches, not to mention that firing a person is always a very difficult process.
So, when your company decides to hire someone to work under your supervision, take control of the process and make sure you get someone who is aligned with your work culture. If your HR department is leading the selection process, make sure you sit in on the interviews, ask the candidates relevant questions and observe how they react.
Never hire someone you think is only so-so for the job, especially if someone in the company is pressuring you to fill a quota or rush the process.
Hiring has huge consequences, so NEVER. EVER. DELEGATE. HIRING.
#20 – Rodrigo, should I pursue a [put your three letter acronym here]? How about certifications? Should I go back to college?
I must confess, I’m biased. I’m a lifelong learner. I’m always learning something new.
When I’m not learning something new in technology, I’m learning a new language (I speak five). When I’m not learning a new language, I’m pursuing a new certification…acquiring new soft skills. When I’m done…rinse and repeat. I start learning something technical.
Learning is what keeps us moving forward and improving the way we deal with things in life.
I highly recommend that you keep learning. Don’t stop. You don’t need to pursue something outrageously expensive at first, but you can start with something useful to your profession and life.
Is learning a new language, such as what your international customers speak, worth the effort? Is pursuing a PMP certification to improve your management skills worth it? Is an MBA the right move to become more business savvy? Yes, absolutely, in all counts.
Just make sure you go for certifications and skills that you have your full interest vested in. There is nothing worse than doing something just for the sake of doing it. Make sure your motivation is crystal-clear.
As I write this, I’m pursuing a cyber security certification at a local college. I’m the oldest person in the room and in the hallways I’m often mistaken as a professor, lol!. I’m learning tons, not only about the subject, but also about this new generation of professionals that is entering the market.
Keep learning, keep going, grow your skills.
#21 – Rodrigo, what is more important: Getting things done or keeping relationships?
Let me understand the question. You’re asking me, Which is more important, getting the project delivered at any cost or keeping relationships intact, but not delivering as much?
If you must choose between getting things done vs. keeping relationships, my unequivocal advice is to keep your relationships intact.
Let me explain why relationships should take precedence, always.
Let’s say you have this project that needs to be done at any cost. You have this mandate to get things done and you completely abide by it. You just push everything down people’s throats and take offense at anyone who is against your project. You run roughshod over everything and everyone to get your project delivered on time and on budget… In the end, you are left with a pat on the back from your boss and a bunch of enemies in the office. Try getting something productive done after that, I dare you.
On the other hand, if you maintain your relationships intact through the process by either considering other people’s input or respecting their point of view, while maintaining your professionalism, you’ll have allies for life. You grow though the difficult times and bring people with you. By preserving your relationships, you won’t be another jerk in the office who pushes people around to get things done. You’ll forever be remembered as being the person who lead the team in difficult times. You’ll have supporters for the rest of your life and will get done whatever you want to get done.
“Long term” is the important term here. If you get things done without considering your long- term relationships, you will have that one shot, and that’s it. People will never want to work with you again. On the other hand, respecting your relationship with colleagues will make you a reference in the office and someone who is trusted, not only by management, but also at all levels in the organization. Think about it…
#22 – Rodrigo, there is a constant and consistent pattern of miscommunication between my team and other teams. It’s driving me nuts. How to I deal with it?
There are two excellent tools available to solve these types of problems.
The first is to establish a focal point, an owner, to represent each group involved in the miscommunication issues. The focal point is a single point of contact in charge of the communication for a given initiative or group.
Let’s say your quality assurance group and your research team have communication issues. There is a lot of blaming and finger pointing going on in the company. On one side, the research team is leaving behind a number of important bugs when new binaries are compiled. On the other, the quality assurance group says no one answers their emails and that the research team doesn’t even know what bugs they are talking about. There is a lot of messy communication breakdown taking place between the two teams.
By establishing a focal point for each group, you are deliberately defining who will be responsible for the interface between them. Instead of having multiple parallel conversations and lots of unaccountable issues being raised, you create two main point of contacts – one for the quality assurance group and another for the research team. This will centralize and resolve all outstanding issues.
When the research group has questions related to a bug, they can contact the quality assurance focal point and that person will take care of tracking issues and evaluating the severity of the bug against the overall priorities. Vice-versa, along the same lines, the research team focal point will receive a list of all pending bugs and provide feedback on what will and won’t be done for the upcoming release.
This keeps all things in check and maximizes accountability.
It’s worth mentioning that focal points don’t necessarily need to be managers. They can be individuals with expertise in their respective areas who are able to articulate well what needs to be done. A focal point can be anyone who knows their team well and is able to track outstanding issues and follow up on them.
My second tool is related to buffering. Let me explain.
Instead of having each team interact on an ad-hoc basis, you can establish certain days of the week when they take time to meet and sync up.
Using the same example above, you can establish that, on Mondays, the quality assurance team provides the research team with a list of new bugs, in order of severity. And, on Tuesdays, for example, the research team will return that list indicating what has been fixed, or not, so they are on the same page. In simple words, the quality-assurance team focal point meets with the research team focal point at recurring, well-known times to discuss the bug pipeline issues.
This approach has a great advantage. It buffers, i.e. brings together, similar issues, which are dealt with in one go, instead of scattering them over the week or over time. The likelihood of having something falling between the cracks is considerably lower using this approach. Also, you can always come (even, unannounced) to these meetings and sit down to calibrate how things are being done.
This strategy works like a charm. Give a try.
#23 – Rodrigo, how to I geographically manage remote contributors?
Dealing with virtual teams requires much more effort than local teams. From the start, it is important to set the expectations and make sure everyone understands how communication will take place.
It is also very important to consider the impact of time zones when dealing with teams on different continents. Try different things to see what works best for your team. Small changes, like changing conference-call times, can improve your team’s work/life balance a lot. There is no silver bullet, so you should be alert to adjust your approach as necessary.
One item that is often neglected when working with remote contributors is to celebrate the team wins. In an office, it is quite easy to gather everyone in a room and congratulate them for the work well done, have some pizza and chat a bit. In a remote environment, managers tend to forget, and sometimes neglect, the fact that some milestones need to be acknowledged and celebrated.
As a manager, you should act as a broker, almost a coordinator, for the information that is shared among your team. You can even create opportunities for people to sync up and share the lessons learned. At minimum, you should be the one who sees the forest from above and make sure people are not lost among the trees, dealing with details.
#24 – Rodrigo, how often should I do performance reviews?
I usually like to hold a major performance review event at the beginning of each year (that could be the beginning of your fiscal year, too). At this point, I set up and discuss the big projects and expectations for the year.
Next, I usually set up informal conversations every three months, where I have an opportunity to speak directly to individual employees about what they are doing well and what needs to be improved. These sessions are also a good time to check expectations and see if there is anything that needs to be done to address any gaps they may be experiencing.
Finally, I hold more formal discussions at mid-year and at the end-of-the year. These are more documented performance reviews to talk about actual track records.
In a nutshell, this is how it would work. Let’s say you start your year in January:
- Jan 15, first formal performance review, setting goals and expectations;
- Around March 15, informal discussion about career and goals;
- Around Jun 15, another career and goal discussion;
- Close to Jul 15, formal mid-year evaluation;
- Around Sep 15, informal discussion about career and goals;
- Early December, formal year-end evaluation;
Two important points here. First, as a rule of thumb, I usually avoid pulling any major surprises on the employee during the formal evaluation – most of the details and feedback are discussed during the informal discussions. Second, I try to be as frank and fair as possible. Let the employee know what is going on in regards to achieving my expectations and the project goals.
Always remember, the worst things are those that are never said.
#25 – Rodrigo, how can I make sure of follow through on critical issues? It seems my team keeps dropping the ball on every [bug, issue, problem, etc.]!
One strategy I have used in the past, that works really well, is what I called “sticky problems”. Whenever a problem is raised and someone from the team touches on it, that person is then responsible to follow through until its closure.
In simple words, my directive is if you touch it, it sticks to you. You have to track it until its resolution.
This works really well for things that involve customer issues, those that are usually lost in the midst of the day-to-day work.
Sometimes I got to the extent of tracking these issues with a bug tracking system, or at least on a shared spreadsheet.
If you touch it, it’s yours until it’s resolved. You get the idea.
#26 – Rodrigo, what’s the best way to estimate the duration of a task?
Well, that is a great question.
The best estimators I have met have done something really well: they estimate. (Pause for impact…)
If you want to improve your estimates, but have never estimated anything in your life, start from scratch and give it a go. It’s going to be off by a lot. The next time, you will have a point of reference and your second estimate will be considerably better than the first. And it goes on and on.
Bottom line, the more you estimate, the better you get at estimating.
That’s the secret.
#27 – Rodrigo, how do I improve the accuracy of my estimates?
First things first, read question #26.
Keep things simple. Chose a methodology and stick to it until you are fully versed in it. There are several ways you can estimate. The biggest problem I see is when people just guestimate their numbers without any clue on how they got them.
Some organizations are very strict on how you estimate projects, others more flexible. At the end of the day, no one will care how you calculated your WCB duration or if you used the most agile estimation method.
Now, besides getting your numbers right, it is more important to learn how to manage your manager’s expectations. Experience will help you get the right numbers. Communicating them well will keep you safe at your job.
They will care if you hit your dates or not. That’s it.
#28 – Rodrigo, how do I keep multiple projects running in sync so I don’t get an unpleasant surprise at the end, when I’m integrating them?
Projects that require integration are the most risky, in my opinion.
There are a few things you can do to avoid last minute surprises.
- Keep a tab of meaningful milestones for all projects. Plotting them in parallel on a (Gantt) chart in order to see the overall trends will simplify how you see the projects. If things start slipping withing the projects, you will know sooner than later.
- Establish integration points. Sit down with all teams and come up with an integration plan. Don’t leave the room without agreeing, at least on a conceptual basis, on how the integration points will come together.
- Start integrating early. Create an overarching module that integrates all pieces together and start the integration work early. The earlier you connect things, the earlier you will know the issues you will run into and be able to adjust your schedule.
- Add time to your project for integration troubleshooting. I’m not talking about adding a 5% contingency. I’m talking about adding 30% or more in time/effort to have room enough to solve all integration issues that eventually come up. People will think you are joking at first, but they will thank you for doing it at the end of the project.
- Create cross-platform teams with representatives from several areas. Troubleshooting integration issues will require people with different skills working together to solve problems. Keep this in mind when you start putting your team together.
Finally, always keep your cool. Everything will come together eventually.
#29 – Rodrigo, how can I avoid an overcommitment of my resources?
I usually trust people who come to me saying they are overwhelmed with work. Some people deal with it more easily than others. However, I’m not a fan of overprotecting people. When someone works on my team, I trust they can be productive and find ways to get things done the most effective way.
Having said that, I set some boundaries, such as: no one on my team can work late or overtime without my written authorization (sending me an email, for instance). Also, if you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, don’t keep it to yourself. You are a team and work together to get things done.
It is a delicate art to keep people’s sanity in check.
However, you are like the basketball coach who knows their team is able to win. You want to motivate them so they do their job to the best of their ability.
Sitting on the bench and overthinking your player’s limitations won’t get you anywhere. Everyone needs to make a commitment to the game to make a difference.
Another important factor in the corporate world that will make a huge difference is that you need to become an expert negotiator. When upper management comes to you with a laundry list of deliverables, you need to know how to say no, say yes and negotiate the rest.
In summary, I don’t think you should ask how to avoid overcommitting your team. You should ask how you can get the most relevant work done using the most of your team’s abilities. Get it?
#30 – Rodrigo, how do I mitigate the risk of building something using technology my team has never seen before?
In my past life as a developer, I did a lot of work on impossible integrations. These were projects that integrated two or more technologies that didn’t work together. They were either too far apart technology wise to be integrated, or the system barely had enough documentation to allow other systems to be integrated to it.
In the end, we always found a way to join the systems. We dealt with things like connecting legacy mainframe systems to the web or applying old assembly code to modern databases. You name it.
The project manager who led all these crazy integrations taught us some superb lessons. When you are dealing with technology that you have never seen or used before, take this into consideration:
- Try to distinguish between what you know and what you don’t know. Let’s say there are parts of the system you fully understand while there are others you are clueless about. Try identifying them so you understand what the risky areas are.
- Keep a list of questions. The first step to understand something is to make a list of the things you don’t understand about it. “How does this system keep it state? Does it rely on some sort of file system? Does it communicate externally? What is this configuration file about?” Keep a list of all your questions and suddenly will you find yourself answering them.
- Immediately tackle what makes your stomach turn. This is a strange one. This manager used to ask us, “What gives you butterflies in this project?” or “What makes you afraid this project won’t work?” Then, he would ask a couple of us to explore a prototype to address exactly the high-risk issue we were facing.
In the end we were always able find a solution and integrate the systems, even if it took a little longer than expected. However, throughout the process we were confident we could distinguish between what we knew and what we didn’t know. That made all the difference for us.
Think about the knowledge you gain every time you need to deal with something new. Just go for it and make sure you have the right mindset, a positive one, when talking to your team.
#31 – Rodrigo, how to I avoid last minute integration issues in my project?
First things first. Every time you integrate something, it will take longer than you think. So, if you have a very tight schedule… best to raise the issue on management radar and start managing expectations: “This will take time and patience.”
The real trick here is to start integration early, as early as you can in your project. Three teams working separately and doing their first integration attempt at the end of the project is a recipe for major migraines. The earlier they start to talk and test their integration points, the better.
Another critical aspect is to keep the boundaries clear. Let’s say someone is integrating with you. Ask them for a sample module you can use for testing. Some people call it stub testing, where you have just enough of the code to generate the necessary inputs for you to continue your part of the integration.
Finally, keep the schedule transparent for all teams. People need to know how far or close they are to beginning integration. There is nothing worse than forcing a team to work on the weekend to reach a milestone, then discovering that the component they will be integrating is two weeks behind.
There are no silver bullets to speed up integration. There is a lot of work and cooperation. So, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
#32 – Rodrigo, how do I avoid high staff turnover in my project?
Well. We live in a modern world. People are free to make their own career choices.
Long gone are those times when someone would work for a company for decades and never think about leaving their team. Life is different now. Things are much more volatile.
Always make sure you have succession plans for all members on your team. Be prepared if someone abruptly decides to leave.
Also, keep an eye on trends. Is your market hot right now? Is your company wage strategy below market? Do you see other teams losing their members? Does your company have long-term perspectives for everyone in your team? Sometimes high turnover is just part of the nature of your business…
One thing for sure, while someone is on your team, or even when they leave your team, treat them with the utmost respect possible. This world goes round and round and you never know where these people will end up, and more certainly, where you’ll end up in a few years.
Paraphrasing Maya Angelou, people may not remember what you’ve said or done to them, but they will remember how you made them feel.
#33 – Rodrigo, how do I avoid useless meetings?
Ha! I love this question.
It’s simple. Learn to say “no!”.
#34 – Rodrigo, how to I ensure people are following through on their project tasks and action items?
Make sure you are following up on their deliverables. This is all about your managerial attitude.
Let’s say someone is assigned a task. Then, no one cares if the task is done…
Guess what? This task will never get done!
So, when you assign someone a task, make sure you follow up later to know what happened. This doesn’t mean you need to check every minute. Give them some room to do it, but after a while make sure you follow up on it.
This will require you knowing what’s important and being more conscious of what you have asked people to do.
Remember, you managerial attitude will greatly affect how seriously people take the tasks they are assigned.
#35 – Rodrigo, how to I avoid letting important actions fall between the cracks?
Being a manager will require a higher level of organization from you. Here is how I deal with important actions.
One interesting, and maybe ingenious approach you can use to prevent things from falling between the cracks is to create a folder called “_waiting for_” in your email inbox. Every time you send something important out to someone, let’s say something that needs to be followed up on or that requires a response, move that item to your _waiting for_ folder.
Every few days, scan through the folder to make sure nothing is falling under the radar.
For example, you asked the development team to decide by when they needed a certain piece of code. After a week or so, while inspecting the _waiting for_ folder, you discover that they haven’t replied to your request. This definitely means time has passed and your initial request may have fallen between the cracks of their priorities. Now you can simply pick up the phone and give the team manager a call and ask him directly about the deadline.
Using the _waiting for_ folder will help important things to not just disappear. This folder is simple to implement and often surprises people, since many tend to forget important things buried in their email inbox. Give a try.
#36 – Rodrigo, how can I avoid people playing the system or window dressing their reported progress?
I have a very important ethical rule I swear by: “The truth will always come out sooner or later.”
In the past, I worked with a managers who, for no obvious reason, would window dress his reports. He always hit his targets and his reports had impeccably good results.
Don’t be fooled by the impeccable façade. Behind the scenes there was a lot of struggle to keep things going and catch up on work that should have already be done.
The cycle worked something like this. Let’s say the team would miss a target date by a few days, which was having the project 98% complete. The product wasn’t completely ready, but was reported as if it were ready to go. Next week, besides the usual work, we would need to finish what hadn’t been completed for the previous delivery. Guess what? The next deliverable would only be 85% done, but reported as completed… and the whole thing snowballed in an endless cycle.
The reports looked amazing, but under the hood… everyone was completely burned out since we had to work nights and weekends to catch up with work and to keep producing.
This went on to the point that the manager even worked holidays and didn’t take vacation so people wouldn’t realize he was behind schedule. On paper, however, everything looked amazing.
One day, however, things started to fall apart. His best developer quit. The technical team lead couldn’t take the pressure and suddenly missed a week of work due to a nervous breakdown. Everyone felt so overwhelmed that they decided to just let the boat go under by itself.
It doesn’t matter if someone thinks they can lie on their reports to keep things looking good, sooner or later the truth will come out.
Granted, this happened in a huge organization and was very difficult to be detected. In a smaller organization, the word would get out more easily, I believe. But, nonetheless, reality hit hard that day, everything felt apart and caught senior management by surprise.
So, playing the system and window dressing won’t get you very far in your career. From this experience I learned that reporting actuals, saying what is really happening, regardless of how bad the news is, becomes a question of honor and respect with your fellow colleagues and management.
#37 – Rodrigo, what’s the best way to communicate project status to high management?
Well this depends a lot on the type of organization you work for.
More traditional organizations require you to report status. This is done in status reports, weekly updates, monthly status, etc. In this case, I strongly recommend that the first part of your report, let’s say the top section or the first two to three paragraphs, should focus on what you want from management. These are highlights, important items, hot topics that you want kept on management radar. By simply summarizing the important information at the top, you cut to the chase and provide them with what really matters. Then, you can continue on with the details, in a way they can easily read, and follow up on any specific information they require.
If you work in a more modern organization, you may only need to report exceptions. These are things that are blocking your project or things that are not going according to plan. As always, I strongly encourage you to keep things brief and to the point. Also, instead of journaling your issues, be proactive and communicate what you need from high management. If you can articulate that well, they will be able to see what’s holding your project back and give you a call or have a meeting to help you enable your team to achieve more results.
Either way, when communicating with senior leaders in your organization, I would recommend keeping things concise and direct to the point.
#38 – Rodrigo, what’s the best way to communicate progress to your own team?
When you think things have stalled and there is a sense that everyone on the team is spinning their wheels, the best way to build momentum is to find some way to show how things are progressing.
I like using milestones. These are project marks – dates – that indicate when something has been completely finished. For example, when developing a mobile app, you can have a few milestones: development environment created, customer subscription functionality implemented, car renting implemented, mobile app deployed in Apple AppStore or Google Play.
There are great advantages to this approach. You don’t have half-dones, meaning you don’t have things partially implemented. In my case, milestones are reached when the full thing is completed. So, progress is real progress.
Another advantage is that this focused the team toward some specific outcome. There is nothing worse than spending one week to complete 95% and another three weeks to finish the remaining 5%. Done means done. Almost done is not done.
As the team sees their real progress, they start to gain momentum and become excited about moving the needle forward. This is almost a magical approach, in my opinion.
#39 – Rodrigo, how do I survive that surge in bugs in late project work?
At this late stage of the project, the good news is that you’ve found the bugs (there is always a positive side). The bad news is that more than likely it is too late to fix them all. You’ll need to compromise some parts of your deliverables.
When you have a surge of issues, bugs or problems, I strongly recommend you step back for a moment and try to categorize them.
Get your team together in a room. Ask them to print the bug reports (usually one to a page) and rate them on a scale. The scale can be from one to ten or something else. Some agile teams use shirt sizes: SS, S, M, L, XL, XXL. Use the approach that is most natural to you.
Categorizing the issues is the way to go because then you can tackle a group of bugs in one go. You batch them and try to hit as many as possible, having the biggest impact possible.
Now, if I were you… I would also schedule a lessons learned meeting when things calm down. Finding out why there were so many issues late in the game is as important as solving them. So, during the next project interaction, you aren’t caught by surprise.
#40 – Rodrigo, how much documentation is enough?
If you ask one of the developers on your team, the answer will be likely be, “None.”
However, if you walk over to the next cubicle or workstation and pose the same question to one of your quality assurance people, they will very likely say, “Everything!” – and rest assured that documenting everything will never be enough for them.
Here is my most important consideration when dealing with documentation. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be asking, “How much documentation is enough?” What you really should be asking is, “You want documentation? For whom?”
There is a big difference between creating documentation for designers or for coders. You’ll need something completely different for what a software tester needs to implement testing scripts in your system. You can even come up with something extremely different for what an end user would need to operate the system.
Here is an analogy. Do you need a schematic for your car’s electrical system? Probably not! However, a mechanic troubleshooting a starter issue may need the part of the schematic showing the starter system. Along the same lines, someone rewiring the car will need a completely different one, a complete one. See what I mean?
Some people think that when documenting, what suits one, suits all. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
They don’t realize that documenting is extremely relative to the target audience.
So, what’s the bottom line? The next time someone asks you how much documentation should be created, ask back, “Documentation? Who will be reading it? Enough to inform the target reader!”
#41 – Rodrigo, what’s the fastest way to ramp up new team members in to my project?
Here is an approach that has worked really well for me. I give the person some pointers where they can find information about the project and some contacts that can answer their questions.
Then, I write down a list of questions based on the errors and issues commonly found in the system being developed. Start with easy questions and move on to tougher ones.
Let’s say you want the person to become familiar with your logging module.
Start with an easy question, such as, “How do you log a message on the system?”
Then, move on to something more difficult, such as, “Find all startup errors on a freshly deployed server and fix them.”
Finally, move on to more advanced stuff, such as, “Simulate a network communication failure and verify if the system has correctly logged all required information.”
You get the idea.
Asking questions helps trigger the person’s curiosity and challenges them to find solutions to problems. It helps them explore the system through exposure to real life situations.
Imagine how much better this approach works when compared to giving the person a pile of pdf’s and asking them to read each one. For me, asking questions is the most efficient way to help a new team member ramp up their knowledge of a new project.
#42 – Rodrigo, what should I do if I’m losing control of my project? How does one regain confidence?
I’m a huge fan of strategizing. So, before losing your way (and your head) in the complexity of a project, start with the obvious. Write down everything your team is doing.
Taking an inventory of what’s going on is the first step in gaining control.
Next, look at where you need to go. Understand your team’s true objectives and question if they are really attainable.
From there, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Trim down as much as you can from the upcoming deliverables so you can rebuild you track record. There is only so much you can do in a 24-hour day. Start to take the conservative road.
Acknowledge that there are some things outside your control, Build your project as if you were building a house, one brick at the time.
Remember, strategizing and planning is your way out of any mess.
#43 – Rodrigo, how do I manage issues with teams across different time zones?
Aff… to answer this question properly would require an entire consulting session with you. But, let’s tackle it, and keep it brief.
The best way to manage geographically dispersed teams is to have a strong accountability system. This means making sure you trust your team’s competence and that they know what needs to be done.
In this context, your flexibility will be tested to the max (e.g. staying up late one day and waking up really early the next) to allow communication to flow. So, you need to excel in your leadership skills to keep the project running smoothly.
Learn to trust your team. Be the one who builds bridges and maintains momentum.
… and of course, take a day off when you are tired of overnight meetings.
#44 – Rodrigo, how do I manage changes to the project’s objectives when half the work has already been completed?
Well, if there is anything you can count on with any project you are leading, it’s that the scope will change over time. Very rarely will things remain as they are.
Keep it very objective.
Do an impact analysis. Evaluate the risks you are facing with the change.
Learn to negotiate. If you don’t know how, start learning posthaste. You will always need to negotiate something.
Be ready to make tradeoffs. The world is not perfect, so there will always be give and take. There is no perfect solution, everything is relative. So, be ready to work out tradeoffs as you move along.
Finally, expect change. In a moment or two, things will change again.
#45 – Rodrigo, how does one keep team sanity in the midst of large organizational changes?
Tell them the sun will rise tomorrow, regardless of what happens today.
People tend to panic during changes. The reality is that changes are opportunities.
People can paralyze during these major changes, fearing they’ll be fired or that their department will be dissolved. Most of the time, big changes at the top take time to trickle down. There might be enough time adapt and show your worth.
Let your team know that changes can be a way for them to achieve new results and show their work in a more transparent and consistent way.
Regardless of how deep the changes were in the organization, their personal relationships will still exist, and grow in the new environment.
Be a leader, they will follow you.
#46 – Rodrigo, what do I do when decision makers have conflicting ideas about the features the project is supposed to deliver?
There is this saying that if you have a watch, you will always know the time. But, if you have two watches, you’ll never know what time it is.
The same is true when dealing with project requirements.
When you have multiple people responsible for what the project is supposed to be, you have a problem. Like having two watches, they will never be able to tell you exactly what they want. There will always be some room for discussion.
So, no matter what type of project process you are running, something more traditional or something along the lines of extreme programming, there should be a mechanism for defining what needs to be done. If this process doesn’t exist in your organization, you had better create it.
In these types of volatile environments, make sure the group has a point person for the project who can shield the change requests from the development team. This person should be responsible for negotiating with the different parties, making sure their interests are represented in what should be delivered by the project.
If you don’t have that person in your organization, you are the one who should be doing it. Sorry to break the news.
Remember that every time someone comes in with a different set of features or requirements, your development team will lose focus and be distracted. In short, nothing will get delivered.
In extreme cases, if you still can’t get things under control, have a meeting with senior management and convince them to implement SCRUM in your organization. They will thank you for it.
#47 – Rodrigo, what should I do if someone says they are too busy to provide status updates?
My first question is… are status updates really necessary?
Maybe your team member is right and they shouldn’t be wasting their precious time filling out forms that will never be read.
Consider some alternatives. Things like consolidating project status information to simplify reporting can be much more useful and efficient. Also, consider doing a live update so your team can update you on their current status without writing endless reports.
Alternatively, what’s their incentive to produce status updates? If they don’t provide the information, will anyone be in trouble? Think about it!
Take into consideration how useful these status reports are and make sure they are aggregating value, instead of just being something useless.
Don’t jump to conclusions when someone doesn’t want to provide updates. Do your homework to see if they have a valid reason for it.
#48 – Rodrigo, what should I do if I’ve been assigned to a project that is failing?
Well, been there, done that! Not an easy task!
The bottom line is to be as transparent as you can.
Be transparent with your team when managing their expectations. Be transparent with management when showing them what the real picture is.
Learn to manage expectations and never hide any issues you are experiencing. Be clear on what’s happening on the ground, where things are being done.
It’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be tough, but it doesn’t mean it has to be painful.
#49 – Rodrigo, which tool should I use to maintain my project schedule?
The answer is simple: Pen and paper… and your legs.
While people are fascinated by the latest versions of MS-Project or Primavera, they miss the point. It’s not the software that maintains your project.
The best project managers I have worked for were those who sat down with us, took notes and moved around the office looking for answers.
There is nothing worse than a project manager who hides in their cubicle and never interacts with their team.
The best tool for the work? Pick up a pen and notepad, stand up and take a stroll around the office. I guarantee you will get the best project updates of your career, and it will make your project maintenance a breeze.
#50 – Rodrigo, what is most critical when finalizing a project?
Make sure your project has been properly closed. This includes closing all pending action items, capturing all project review info, reverting all resources back to their home teams.
It is also important to make sure that any recurring tasks have been captured and assigned to new owners. I’ve seen many people just close their projects and forget about these types of tasks. Then, a few months down the road you hear that the server failed because someone forgot to rebooted it after certain periodical maintenance work.
I usually schedule a small celebratory meeting where we discuss and document these remaining items, besides congratulating everyone for completing their work.
#51 – Rodrigo, how should I deal with projects that have been completely cancelled?
Yup… that sucks.
There is nothing worse than canceling a project in the middle of its creation. There are two aspects that must be dealt with.
The first is the human side. Some people can become extremely attached to projects and seeing them cancelled can cause frustration. Sometimes, people will be dismissed when projects don’t move forward. Allow your team the time to process their losses and acknowledge that it’s OK to feel the way they do. Also, let them know that life goes on and that they won’t forget the lessons learned before the project was cancelled.
The second is more procedural. Try to be as objective as you can when dealing with the project closure. For instance, are there any pending contracts that you need to consider? Can project assets be archived in such a way that they easily accessible if the project is revisited? Should you free up some space on the servers so new projects can be created?
Canceling projects can be very traumatic. If I were you, I would get in touch with your HR manager and your line manager to help you handle what the organization wants to communicate with that move. Management alignment is not just important, it is essential to keep things moving forward in the organization.
Please remember: Whatever you do, do it with as much integrity as possible.
#52 – Rodrigo, what should I do if my project fails miserably?
You can either look at things as failures or you can see them as learning experiences. Keep that in mind.
#53 – Rodrigo, why does everything come back to me? I feel I can’t get my work done. It seems like everyone in the office needs my input!
Becoming the central point of the office means that people trust you and your knowledge.
When you get things done and excel at your work, guess what? You get more work, more difficult problems to solve and more people willing to share their problems with you.
The main idea here is, as you get better at what you do, you should limit your availability and trust that people can deal with their own issues.
If you don’t limit your availability, you will soon become overwhelmed and not have time to perform at your best.
Learn to pick your battles and simply say “no!” to things that are not part of your job description. You are not supposed to solve the world’s problems.
If you feel you are becoming the catch-all type of person in the office, stop now! Limit your availability.
Please keep asking questions!!!! Submit yours here!