I recently completed a home improvement project to install an underground sprinkler system in my yard. After digging trenches up and down and around the house and running tubing in each direction, I needed to splice the tubing at several points with a tee or an elbow requiring various joining connectors at each bend. At some points, I needed to connect different sized tubes at various angles.
I was amazed at how many different configurations they make of the tubing connectors and how many I purchased that didn’t fit my needs. When I calculate the total cost of the project, I’ll need to reduce it by the amount of the refunds when I return all of the wrong sized connectors I bought. I should also factor in all of the gas I burned running to Home Depot, Lowes and all of the other stores trying to find the right parts.
There were many moments of frustration. After spending hundreds of dollars on valves, sprinkler heads, pipes and tubing, there were points when I was unable to move forward on the project because I had purchased the wrong thirty-nine cent connectors.
Good project connections
As I thought about it on one of my trips back to the home improvement store, I realized how much that concept applied for any project I’ve worked on in the consulting world. We hire expert project managers, architects, subject matter experts and business analysts. We work together to define business requirements, tasks and timelines. We put them all together with a plan and a deadline and call it a project.
But if team members don’t communicate with one another, they’re really just a bunch of components. The valves, tubing and sprinkler heads won’t make the grass green if the connectors don’t help get the water to where it’s going.
Individual workers on a project have to connect just the same. They need to communicate with one another so that each person knows the status of tasks they are dependent upon.
How do we guarantee that the team communicates effectively so that all the connections work? I’ve found three key tools to insure the connections work on a project:
Visibility of tasks. A project plan is full of good intentions. It’s nice to have a document that lists all of the tasks on a project, who is responsible for its completion, its planned duration, start date, end date and so on. But whether this information is kept in a simple spreadsheet or a detailed MS-Project plan, few people on the project, including team members and the project’s customers are going to take the time to study and understand that volume of detail.
I’ve found that it’s better to make tasks and their assignments more visible. We use what we call a wall Gantt. Every three to four weeks, we plan out everyone’s tasks. Simple sticky notes are used for each task. On the wall we plot out dates for that period along the top and all the task owners’ names down the left side. Each person then puts each task on the wall under the dates they plan to start each task. When a task is completed, they mark it off with a slash.
This allows everyone on the project, including the business stakeholders to look at the wall Gantt and see exactly where we stand for progress. Everyone on the project has visibility to the scheduled tasks, their planned completion and their actual completion.
The team room concept
In consulting we talk a lot about “the war room.” This is where most, if not all, of the key project team members sit together. It’s usually a large – but often not large enough – conference room where tables are placed along the outer perimeter for all of the team members to work together.
Some claim that they can’t work in such an environment. It can be distracting at time. When two or three team members get together to solve a problem, other workers in the room need to tone them out so they can concentrate on their own work. But when team members work remotely, even separated by cubicles on the same floor, the camaraderie and team problem solving just don’t happen.
All it takes in one person in the room to run into a problem, turn around and ask a team member and soon they are working together towards a resolution. It doesn’t happen like that when they’re separated by cubicles. The connections are just too broken.
The daily stand-up
On traditional projects, the project manager would meet with the team on a weekly basis for a status meeting. The assumption is that team members will let the manager know about issues that are so urgent that they can’t wait a week. And we all know what happens when we assume.
As long as the team is all working in the same room, why not stand up for fifteen minutes each day and have each team member give a quick update that gives three key pieces of information: What you accomplished yesterday; what you plan to accomplish today; anything that is blocking you from making progress. Anyone that can help removed obstacles jumps in and helps. If someone is going to be delayed on their task and someone else is dependent on that task, she will know immediately. The person with the dependent task can either see what she can do to help move the other task forward, or replan her work to try to complete another task while they wait.
The key here is that connections are made on a timelier basis. Rather than waiting up to a week, co-workers are informed in near real-time of delays that affect them. Connections are made.
For anyone that has worked on or managed an agile project, these tools are second nature. These are major components of agile projects. But a project doesn’t need to be agile to implement these tools. Any project can use some form of these tools to make sure that all team members are connected and working in sync.
Before you know it, the project is running as fertile as a field of well-watered green grass.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.