Lasting communication instead of talk and forget

Today I had a task to complete that I had long postponed due to other pressing matters. The team urged me to finally finish my part so that we could complete the implementation of a function in the software. The logic to be clarified was rather demanding and I struggled to get back into it. My to-do card on the task board was vague and my recollection of the initial meeting had already faded. So I started researching and found an email that refreshed my memory.

Overabundant communication channels lead to information loss

Oh, good old email. What a surprise, since I have much more modern communication tools at hand. Our team is spread all over Germany and we have been accustomed to working remotely, even before the corona pandemic. This works just fine for us, with the help of agile rituals such as the daily standup meeting and communication via video conferencing and chat. Successful communication is essential for the success of the project, as is well known.

It is also convenient that notes and documents can directly be shared within the online meeting. The catch is, however, that the chat often ends up containing decisions and technical information. Hence, the information I was looking for could just as well have been found there. Apart from email and chat, a surprising number of companies also have a third potential location for finding information: network drives, where project documents are stored in a more or less structured manner.

Communication in context means finding instead of searching

Have fun searching! Luckily, we at CONTACT have it much easier. We use our own software for project management, which provides us with excellent tools to do things better. In addition to the project management functionality, these include document management and a communication functionality called Activity Stream.

Posts in the Acitivity Stream – and this is the key point – can always be assigned to an object. For example, to a project, a task, or an open item. Or, in the case of our customers, to product data such as a CAD model, a bill of materials, or simulation data. This links project and product data to the relevant communication activities. For one thing, this allows us to search and find information in one single tool. In addition, because the object serves as an anchor point for the associated communication, all context-relevant information is automatically displayed when the object is called up.

Enrich objects with information en passant

Back to my case: To clean up the mess, I attached a document with my solution to the completed task. Along with it, I added the email that helped me do it. I also created and linked a new task for implementation by my colleagues, then wrote a summarizing Activity Stream post and shared it with them.

Now, I have brought together what belongs together. Even if a team member unfamiliar with the project history takes over the implementation, all information is immediately at hand. He or she can ask a question via the Activity Stream, without having to explain the context in an email or chat first. If I had used the Activity Stream to communicate within the task’s context from the beginning, all relevant information would have been assembled there. And I would have saved myself the trouble of researching and combining it.

Changing habits pays off

So, what do we learn from this? Firstly: A project management system with document management and context-related communication à la Activity Stream improves collaboration enormously. Secondly: It takes some discipline not to fall back to other tools at the first opportunity – as I did. But it saves a lot of work later on.

Time and time again, I see customers hesitating to switch from email to this type of contextual communication. My simple advice: Have the courage! Provide your employees with an appropriate tool and advocate for it. It may be unfamiliar at first, and it takes some time to gain widespread acceptance. But it is worth it. For the entire organization as well as the individual employee!

Time scheduling – The hammer of project management?

If you have only a hammer as a tool, you see a nail in every problem. Mark Twain is credited with the bon mot ” If you have only a hammer as a tool, you see a nail in every problem”. Even if it is not clear beyond doubt who is actually the author of this statement, it remains probably the most succinct formulation for “Maslow’s hammer

So what does this have to do with project management?

When it comes to project management software, I often observe that users try to achieve a wide variety of goals with just one tool, namely scheduling. You can’t blame them, because many project management tools tempt users to do just that.

In the process, schedules are created from hundreds or thousands of daily tasks. It is not uncommon for me to also encounter tasks in question form, such as “Specification released?”, “Customer presentation done?” and so on, provided with duration, deadline and task links.

Over-detailed planning takes its revenge in the project

The dilemma: Such plans are only pseudo precise, with many detailed deadlines calculated from activity links. Although everyone involved actually knows that in larger projects no activity is completed to the day. Nevertheless, everyone pretends that the plan is exactly right.

Also, the practice of managing resource utilization by linking all the tasks of a particular person one after the other only works well until you have to change the planning. Then the whole scheduling structure is no longer right. But the scheduling tool continues to calculate the dates mercilessly according to the network plan. The more detailed the plan is, the more time-consuming it is to make changes in the course of the project. You move one task and many others move with it – but unfortunately not in the way you would have expected. You no longer understand your own, overly complicated network plan and require a great deal of rescheduling effort for new fake precision. Some people leave the plan unchanged and start improvising instead

Use the entire toolbox

Here it is obvious to think of agile approaches as an alternative. But you don’t necessarily have to change your project management completely. Many experienced project managers say: “Agile is nothing new. With me, it’s just not a task board, but a good old open points list.” And that’s exactly the key. Plan only as precisely as necessary and as really useful. The motto here is: Better good rough planning than poor detailed planning. Even if the rough plan probably doesn’t come in as thought, it’s much easier to correct and makes the impact on the project more readily apparent.

For detailed issues, a list of open items (LOP) with clearly defined responsibilities is the tool of choice. And for anything you want to schedule in question form, checklists that are reviewed regularly as the project progresses are helpful. If not met, put an action on your LOP. And perhaps you record and monitor risks and define countermeasures to take timely and effective countermeasures. This usually puts you in a much better position for a successful project.

So: Only use the hammer for nails. For everything else, feel free to pick up pliers, screwdriver or wrench!

Complicated vs. Complex: the human factor in project management

Classic, agile or hybrid project management – what do I choose in a project?  The Stacey Matrix (after the organizational theorist Ralph D. Stacey) can provide a decision support. A criteria catalog is used to assess how well a project plan is already understood – in terms of requirements on the one hand and the solution approach on the other. Are the requirements clear or are we moving into a new, as yet unknown market? Are you using a well mastered technology or a new one with which you have no experience?

Simple, complicated, chaotic?

Along these two axes, the Stacey matrix divides a project into the categories simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. According to the so-called Cynefin framework, simple systems are ordered so clearly that they can be understood immediately. Complicated systems are difficult to understand. With expert knowledge, however, it is possible to understand and predict their cause-effect relationships in advance.

Although complex systems are also determined by clear causalities, they exhibit so many interactions that even experts are no longer able to analyze them sufficiently in advance. The correlations can only be recognized and understood afterwards. A system is described as chaotic if there are no clear causal relationships and one and the same cause can produce completely different effects.

A small example illustrates this:
For a meteorologist, for example, a weather forecast for the next hour may be simple, one for the next day complicated. A forecast for the next week, on the other hand, might be a complex problem, while the forecast for one day of the next year is certainly a chaotic one.

As long as project plans are simple or complicated, they can be well mastered with a waterfall like, firmly predefined procedure depending on the expertise. However, the more they tend towards complexity, the more an agile, flexible approach with many feedback loops and the possibility of trial and error is recommended. I think this is a plausible approach, which, by the way, can be applied not only to entire projects, but also selectively to individual areas in a project.

The social dimension

But perhaps this approach is not quite enough. We have talked about requirements and about approaches to solutions, but not yet about the people who work together in the project. Isn’t their organizational and social interaction also simple, complicated or complex to chaotic? And doesn’t this factor have the same major impact on the success of the project? In my opinion, this is precisely the point at which one must speak of unpredictability, i.e. complexity.

A well-rehearsed team that has been working together for years can certainly be classified as easy. However, it is often forgotten that hardly predictable dynamics can occur in a newly assembled team or in a new cooperation of different departments with different interests. Here, agile methods with their focus on results-oriented communication can be the key to mastering the project.

So perhaps we should add a third dimension, “social interaction”, to the two axes “requirements” and “solution approach” in order to complete the decision model and lay the foundation for project success.