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Sunday, 24 January 2010 00:00

Resuscitating the Knuckle Draggers

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No Knuckle Draggers

Walking onto red projects, anyone can see and feel the problems. The bedraggled team wears the pain with their long faces and the slumped shoulders. Knuckle draggers. They are carrying the weight of the world, or at least the project, on their shoulders. How can any project succeed with these demoralized, denigrated, and defeated folks? Their spirits are far from lifted with new project manager's enthusiastic optimism. It only irritates a team wallowing in their misery. Nothing is worse than a chipper cheerleader when you are absorbed in troubles. It is an ugly situation.

So Many Issues, So Little Time

As you may have noticed, I try to reach out to other project managers and understand their techniques. To that end, Mark Gibson (@mdgibson) and I were talking about demoralized teams other day. His comments spurred me to think about how I improve morale.

Specializing in audit and turn-around, I have developed ways to address the team's morale problems in parallel with discovering problems' root causes. I use a combination of techniques. These all focus on fulfilling the immediate need of the people—listening to what they have to say. In the scurry and fuss with a red project, too many managers have forgotten to listen, let alone talk, to the individuals in the team. Managers are too busy trying to find someone to blame, even the team.

So where do I start? Simple. Listen to the team. After all, to figure out what is wrong with the project one must get answers to some basic questions. Execute four tasks in parallel:

  1. Interview each person;
  2. Meet with a different set of team members every day in an impromptu, unstructured manner;
  3. Determine something you can do to improve the environment;
  4. Find a way of giving the team a win.

The first three are completely under the manager's control. Granted, including these tasks into an eight-hour day is difficult, but writing emails and interview notes can be accomplished in the evening. Turn arounds are not a nine to five jobs.

When interviewing people on troubled projects I ask three simple questions:

  1. What is wrong with the project?
  2. What would you do to fix it?
  3. What can I do to help you fix it?

These are empowering questions. They focus on building mutual respect as well as determining the ills on the project.

Respect and Trust Build Teams

A few weeks ago, I made the bold statement that project managers do not run projects. Many took me literally and made comments about the need for a project manager. The point of the article, however, is that teams really run the projects and the project manager leads the team, clearing obstacles from their path.

I think we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.

Henry David Thoreau

Keeping, what I refer to as, the lessons learned in mind throughout the project, focuses project managers' energies on helping the team. It keeps them in the humble position of remembering who is really delivering the project. To summarize that article, the lessons learned are:

  1. The answers are in the team;
  2. Strong team can surmount nearly anything;
  3. Stay a peer with the team;
  4. Objective data is your friend.

Mark adds other helpful leadership traits in his article Leadership Question: Does The PM Work For The Resources.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

In most cases, the root causes for personnel problems are team members assigned to the wrong tasks—tasks requiring skills they are missing. This is an organizational, opposed to an individual contributor, problem. Moving people to tasks that are complimentary to their skills can be done without shame or anxiety.

Unfortunately, life is not all peaches and cream. There are times when some form of disciplinary action is required. It is rare, but it happens. These situations are difficult. However, keeping poisonous personalities on projects is not an option. In these cases, the affects of releasing the problem person is positive and immediate. It is often the case that the offending individual is charismatic and many people fail to see the divisiveness. If the assessment is right, team members will see the difference very quickly. The case study in the article Fire the Bastards is a good example.

Give The Team a Win

Eventually you will know enough to start applying substantive changes to the project. Scrutinize the potential changes for ones that can be implemented early and provide benefit to the team, the customer, or, better yet, both.

It could be as simple as removing some mundane task, dedicating people to their tasks, reducing low-value meetings, or even providing donuts on Friday. Little things to show people they are the focus of getting the project done. A favorite is to stop the weekly status reporting by team members. Status reports made are redundant by talking to people on a regular basis. Most team members are excited to shed the task.

Even fixing problems in something as mundane as the methodology can be a great boost to team spirits. Mark pointed me to something he had written that has an entire section on fixing process and methodology issues. Also, I use a tactic to uncover high-impact benefits by asking the team to identify one thing the customer really wants and is easy to implement or demonstrate. The little win of showing tangible progress is the great morale booster.

Defeating the Knuckle Dragger

Integrating inspiring the team with project problem detection streamlines the work of a recovery manager. The team is involved with the solution and individuals feel valued. It is a technique that brings quick returns when the project gets back to executing the new recovery plan. The team is proud and stands tall.

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