Monday, 29 November 2010

The Importance of R&R

A new project and what it could mean for an organisation is exciting. It’s very easy to get caught up in that excitement and forget that a project is the sum of many parts and people. Companies don’t operate as isolated instances so why would projects. Start introducing global programmes and company portfolios and the hierarchy necessary to manage that work effort for a joined-up solution increases exponentially.

Delivering successful projects relies on an approach that’s robust and mature enough to set clear terms of reference and give everyone the instruction, information and support they need in order to succeed.

How do you shape up?

The definition and assignment of roles and responsibilities are critical aspects to this. Take the role of project manager as an example. They have responsibility for overall delivery of the project yet their role includes many sub-responsibilities. They’re expected to have sufficient knowledge and experience to juggle, prioritise, lead, drive, and manage every one of them. The role of a project manager isn’t easy; it takes guts, courage, dogged determination and a combination of carrot and stick to manage and coordinate the multitude of tasks running in parallel. And let’s not forget the people management skills necessary to understand all the different personalities and characteristics of everyone involved.

Managers, whether project or line, come in a range of shapes, sizes and experience levels. There are good, bad and lost ones. I’m sure we could debate and come up with many more categories but it’s the lost ones who I think need some special focus. Project managers can be lost for many reasons. Maybe they bit off more than they thought they could chew. Sometimes they’re lost because the person hiring them was also lost and made a poor hiring decision that’s resulted in a square peg in round-hole scenario. Perhaps they interpreted the role as something other than what it is.

How could someone misinterpret a role? It’s surprisingly easy actually. Long-ago I attended a communications course where we learned how messages are relayed between people. It went something like this... The speaker decides what they want to say (thought), they formulate the words for the message (meaning), they send the message (speak). The listener hears the message (hearing), interprets the message (meaning) and adds it to their information bank (knowledge). Whether the listener has received the same message as the speaker intended is up for debate. Hence misunderstanding and misinterpretation, also known as Chinese whispers. Feedback is very important here to check understanding.

If someone appears confused about their role and responsibilities or is not delivering against them as expected, those who put them in that position must own up, be accountable and take action to change the situation both now and in the future. Project management methodologies have a term for this - ‘Lessons Learned’. They’re an objective review of what’s happened, what went well and what didn’t, and what actions need to be taken for continuous improvement. But, they're absolutely useless unless action is taken (read a well written blog post about this by Todd Williams of Back From Red).

The following steps form a guide for taking action for clearer roles and responsibilities:
  1. Are the terms of reference clear? This includes scope, boundaries, goals, objectives, and the relationship to the wider programme or organisation.
  2. Are the roles and responsibilities well defined and documented? This is necessary for all project roles not just the ‘management’ ones. People need clarity around expectations and how to work or interact with others.
  3. What is the process for communicating 1 and 2 to those appointed? Face-to-face is ideal unless there are virtual teams of course. Then it’s best to get on the phone and walk through everything. Email communication doesn’t cut the mustard with this except to circulate the definitions.
  4. What is the mechanism for checking understanding? There must be feedback whether it’s verbal or by watching body language. Body language is difficult with virtual teams unless video-conferencing is available. Even without video it’s possible to check understanding using active listening skills and checking for what’s not being said and everything being positive.
  5. How is performance monitored, assessed, kept on track? What is the feedback loop? If something or someone isn’t working how will you know about it? Again virtual teams make this more difficult however virtualisation is an acceptable way to deliver projects now. Virtual or not, the human factor cannot be excluded. Talk to people, build trust, and open the way for people to feel able to say ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I’m confused’. This ensures problems are addressed quickly rather than building into a much larger problem with wide-reaching implications.
It’s not enough to address the immediate problem. To really create change, the overall approach must be revisited. Only once it can expand and contract to the size of the project, programme or portfolio can you say that it’s reached a high level of maturity. Don’t be fooled though as any approach along with the definition of all roles and responsibilities must continue to adapt as organisations and projects evolve.

What are you doing to provide clear terms of reference and ensure both parties share a common meaning of a role and its responsibilities?

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