Austin Duncan is a graphic designer out of Lubbock, Texas. He specializes in running and managing creative teams working on several simultaneous projects.

Stuck: 10 Ways to Get Your Team Moving

Stuck: 10 Ways to Get Your Team Moving

Hit a wall, or worse?

This just in – we all have.

Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degernerate into hard work.

– Peter Drucker

Whether you’re a project manager, freelance artist, student, or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, it’s likely that you’ve had a project come to a screeching halt – or even fail. Failure is a routine part of everyone’s lives, and as such it shouldn’t be treated as something that just comes and goes. Instead of taking failure as a negative aspect of your career, let’s define what failure is. Yes, it means that a project didn’t deliver to the expectations set for it, but when we dig deeper, it’s possible to gain some insight into what to do next no matter what your occupation is.

A simple definition.

The definition of failure can, and should, be expanded to include the negative impat of a troubling project environment in pursuit of project objectives.

– David M. Ciriello, MBA, PMP, PMI-SP, MCTS, CISA

At what cost was success achieved? Success doesn’t always mean a victory for the entire team. Although you met the project’s objectives, relationships could suffer, budgets exceeded; communication barriers arose where previously absent – does that mean the project was a success? Projects should be viewed as temporary endeavors (Project Management Institute, 2008, p.5), meaning that in addition to completing a successful project, professionals should also be aware of the side effects and causes that success could ultimately have, and be ready to act appropriately. Acting correctly doesn’t mean to avoid tough situations or try to be the nice guy around the office; it means to understand that project may failso it’s imperative to prepare for the challenge of managing tasks and teams during tough times. It’s also important to note the use of the word “team” several times already during this post. Not one person can ensure success, no matter how perfect he/she may be (or think he/she is). It’s usually a great practice to be the person on a team to lead by example and demonstrate to your colleagues significant, positive leadership when faced with tough situations.

Raise the Bar

If a project starts to stall mid-flight, and that stall becomes a death spiral, a few things can be expected. Tensions will rise, team members get nervous, and people start passing the blame – and why not? No one wants to be the reason a project failed. And no is. It doesn’t matter who messed up – if a project fails, everyone fails. As a project manager (or even as a member of a team) it’s your responsibility to stay above the tensions and blame passing and maintain a high level of respect and high emotional intelligence at all times. If colleagues are complaining about “so and so” not communicating well, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I agree that team members who don’t communicate effectively are dangerous and crippling, but hear me out). Take the issues and reasons a project is failing and use them to achieve success. If your team is pointing out a reason things are going badly, you’re already one step ahead of the game in getting to the core of the problem. By constantly (and consistently) creating a team environment and only focusing on the goals of the project (not who messed up or when), you can be an invaluable leader to the other people. People value structure, direction, and support during tough and trying times(The Community Toolbox, 2016).

Move Out of the Way

You’ve heard it numerous times, we all have. “I was thrown under the bus!” The famous complaint people use when challenged with the failure of a project. Being “thrown under the bus” can happen many ways, such as someone putting on the spot during a meeting without warning, being unfairly associated the failures specifically out your control, or being blamed for someone else’s inept decision making. If you’re a person in a position of authority or knowledge in your workplace, it’s your duty to be prepared to be “thrown under the bus.” Being put on the spot in a meeting isn’t anything new, and as such, we should be prepared for it – know your project, all of the details, and be prepared to speak about them when asked. Also, when put on the spot, a look of fright or utter confusion should never cross your face as you will instill those same doubts in your stakeholders as well. Handling tough situations/scenarios with a calm confidence maintains their faith in you.

Strength

What does that name bring to mind? Terminator? Austrian? Funny accent? Dad willing to do anything for an action figure (I love that movie)? For me, it brings to mind strength. You almost never see The Oak frazzled in the face of the public. Granted he is an actor, and he is meant to look tough and cool during fight scenes or in situations a reasonable person would completely lose it, but there’s still a lessoned to be learned here – strength, not stress. When tempers flare in the workplace, important deadlines are about to pass, or people start playing the blame game, it is important to contribute by helping to create a favorable environment. Easier said than done, right? Not really. Rather than joining in and taking center stage on the bandwagon, try communicating the importance of staying focused, applying documented and proven processes, and maintaining a healthy perspective on the big picture. According to David M. Ciriello, this includes “never losing your temper or making overly concerned statements such as ‘here we go again,’ or ‘this is too much,’ or ‘I can’t believe we’re still behind.'” He goes on to say that “even unintentional actions such as loud sighs, extensive forehead rubbing, and a general and chaotic demeanor will reinforce the concern within other team members.” If the team sees just one of their leaders showing any stress, the inescapable reaction will be a higher increase of stress for your team members as well. Therefore, be sure to show strength (like Arnie) through being focused, purposeful, and providing honest statements that are intended to promote progress (Ciriello, 2010).

Step Out Into Nature, Go Camping, See the Forest AND the Trees

A classic idiom in business management – to “see the forest through the trees” which means to be able to discern an overall pattern (or big picture) from a mass of details (iTRACS, 2016). It emphasizes the importance of looking at the big picture instead of all the details, but some argue that this represents a false comparison between the two. While trudging through the muck of a challenging project, the importance of project managers to have a keen understanding and vision of both details and the big picture cannot be emphasized enough (I even bolded, italicized, and underlined it). And the opposite is also true. If you portray the idea that you don’t fully understand the big picture and details, then your project stakeholders could begin to have doubts, in addition to adding unneeded stress to your team. Looking at the details helps PMs to find exactly where problems are occurring, and gives a unique insight on how to fix them. Having a clear view of the forest, however, can also guide decisions about whether or not problems within a project are truly problems in the grand scheme of it all. If a small/tiny tree falls in a forest, it’s still a forest. However if the deforestation crew shows up, there’s a problem.

Get Ahead of the Past

Another common stress-inducing nightmare is that of the slipping schedule. When any task or deliverable is late, there is an undeniable result that occurs in the form of two different options. Either the quality of the work will suffer, or the deadline will pass. Usually, finishing the product or service on time takes precedence over the process and planning of a project. You may hear people saying, “how fast can you have this done,” or “this has to go out ASAP,” and when you do, they’re obviously in a hurry. Projects that are progressing on time aren’t always experiencing a four-alarm fire. As a project manager, it’s important to realize that when deliverables are coming fast (almost too fast), there could be additional work to follow, like reworking, again and again – which will also impact the next deliverable after that (Quinn, 2016). Avalanches can form from the smallest of instigators, but once they’re flowing down the mountain, you can’t stop them. Looking multiple steps ahead and making appropriate decisions can save a lot of headaches and stress down the road with current and future projects.

He said what?!

It will happen, mark my words – you will be blamed for something out of your control at some point, it’s in human nature. As said by David M. Ciriello, “the tendency to blame others when faced with negative feedback is a defensive reaction from both new and experienced team members.” As someone in a leadership position, playing the blame game only reinforces our unfortunate defense mechanism when others try to do the same. Here’s ultimately what it comes down to – project stakeholders don’t care that your developer was sick for two days, and that creative had to reinstall Illustrator because their Creative Cloud account didn’t renew properly, or that Bob in the back wouldn’t stop talking – if the project is late, it is late. If the blame game starts becoming commonplace, your team may stop bringing risks to your attention, or even try to cover them up, because who wants to be the reason a project failed? What’s more, we usually know when we’ve messed up on something – having it pointed out in a derogatory manner won’t improve your team or their work ethic (especially if it’s pointed out in a public manner). Looking at solutions to problems instead of focusing on what someone did wrong adds a positive vibe to the air, and shows that you’re more interested in succeeding as a team instead of telling your boss that so-and-so messed up, and it’s not your fault. Which brings me to the next important tip:

Owning mistakes

This should be the case outside of the workplace as well. If everyone owned their mistakes, the world would be a far better place. We all make mistakes – daily. While some are pretty negligible, others can be massive, but what ties them all together is that we’ve all made them and will continue to make them. Accepting the fact that we make mistakes can be a quite humbling process, but an important one. This acceptance can be exceptionally tough because our brains are predisposed to protect our egos from blame when we mess up (McKay, McKay, 2013). To begin owning your mistakes, you must first learn to admit to your mistakes at the appropriate time. When a mistake is made in particular regard to a project, admitting to it will inevitably begin to build trust between you, your team, and stakeholders. The building of trust is one of the most important aspects of developing integrity ethically as a project manager. What’s more, experienced leaders tend to assess performance based on how team members and individuals respond to their mistakes. As always, honesty is best. Ciriello gives an excellent example of terrific mistake acknowledgment: “Today we identified a new risk. The eight hours of coding completed by our team yesterday will need to be redone because it was completed using incomplete scenarios. We were able to uncover this mistake swiftly, due to our internal control procedures. We’re already working on the resolution, and the attached proposed project plan updates show we are projecting to be back on track by the end of the day.” Accepting a mistake places a project manager in a position to be an example to other team members when dealing with stressful situations. Again, this acceptance of mistakes also helps your team feel as though it is okay to bring attention to their mistakes without a fear of an overly negative reaction (Ciriello, 2010).

Talk

Communication plays an integral role in keeping a project on task (Frost, n.d.). The lack thereof could be detrimental to the success of a project. Some communication barriers could easily be the nature of the beast, such as the natural division between a client and the project management. Others, however, could be due to more serious reasons such as stress, blame, or strained relationships due to the weight of a project. To be successful as a project manager, you must realize the importance open communication has on the success of a project and team. If a team member is unnaturally quiet, find out why. Is the scope of work too much for them? Are they new to their role and unsure of what to do? Ciriello says that often, there “is a logical and solvable explanation for communication breakdowns.” He goes on to give an example of while working on a “year-long project there was a resource that was consistently a few hours late when submitting updates that needed to be submitted to leadership. After two months of poor communication, management finally reached out to the individual about the delay. Turns out he had a recurring meeting with the most senior project stakeholder the entire morning of the reporting day! The simple solution was the he was allowed to submit his updates the day before the deadline.” Although your answer may not appear this black and white, Ciriello gives a good example of the importance of establishing healthy communication between team members (Ciriello, 2008).

Don’t be a “yes man”

It’s easy to say what people want to hear. If the sole purpose of a project manager were just to tell the client yes to everything and organize a team to do it, then everyone would be a project manager. It’s easy to say yes, but much harder to bring attention to potential downsides of clients’ ideas. This is where using intuition, looking at the forest and the trees and acknowledging what objectives the client needs met is important. Project managers need to have the strength to speak up and disagree if necessary. Failing to do so can be just as hazardous (if not more) than anything previously mentioned in this article. There are usually unintended consequences of decisions, and their impact could play a larger role than people may think. When proposing a disagreement, it is important to have a reasoned argument (never emotionally driven) (McDonald, 2014) to support your stance/claim. By doing so, you are supporting a value-added discussion (with the appropriate reasoning behind your position) about possible alternatives that could work better than the original idea. Or better yet, you could inspire ideas from your team that in return, bring about something better than any one person would think of on their own.

Teach Yourself

When a project is wrapped up and in-the-books, great project managers know that there were lessons to be learned. These experiences should be documented, discussed, and attributed to future projects for a higher success rate and more successful endeavors (Project Management Institute, 2008). How many people do this? Probably not very many, and this fact can give you a distinct advantage. Some things Ciriello states that are important to take note of include, “How did you get out of that tough spot with the argumentative team member? What reporting tools did you use to highlight slipping progress in a way that hadn’t been done before? What communication techniques worked well in the challenging daily meeting?” Tracking the things you’ve learned is like taking notes in school. Use them to better yourself as a project manager and to hone your leadership skills.

I’ll Leave You With This

As a project manager, you cannot achieve success alone. It takes a team for a project to succeed. Through promoting success to the best of your ability, you set the stage to allow your team to truly create and complete significant projects/services. Ciriello argues that “a successful project manager is one who creates a project environment that is the most conducive to collectively achieving the project objectives,” and hopefully, you now have the tools to do so a little easier.

References:

Ciriello, D. M., MBA, PMP, PMI-SP, MCTS, CISA. (2010, October 4). Tough Project? Ten Insights for True Success as a Project Manager. Retrieved May/June, 2016, from http://www.pmi.org/learning/professional-development/career-central/~/media/PDF/Professional-Development/careerweek40Resurfashx.ashx

Frost, S. (n.d.). How Important Are Communication Plans for Project Managers? Retrieved May 27, 2016, from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/important-communication-plans-project-managers-37520.html

McDonald, D. (2014, March 10). How to Manage Conflict; Win the Argument While Managing Your Emotions. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from http://www.corrections.com/news/article/35185-how-to-manage-conflict-win-the-argument-while-managing-your-emotions

ITRACS. (2016). Seeing the Forest Through the Trees. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from https://www.itracs.com/seeing-the-forest-through-the-trees/

McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2013, February 18). Why Is It So Hard To Admit Mistakes? Personal Responsibility 101 | The Art Of Manliness. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/02/18/owning-up-to-mistakes/

Project Management Institute. (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Quinn, J. (2016, February 03). What to do if your Project Runs Late? Retrieved May 27, 2016, from http://project-management.com/what-to-do-if-your-project-runs-late/

The Community Toolbox. (2016, January 1). Section 1. Organizational Structure: An Overview. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/structure/organizational-structure/overview/main

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