«Can you hear me? How to connect with people in the virtual world» by Nick Morgan
This is a book I find to be appealing to different audiences in the same clear and friendly language. If you are looking for advice on your online and social medial presence, this is the book. Equally, if you work in a virtual working environment, this is the book. It is written by Nick Morgan – one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists, and coaches. He also did lots of research for the book and offered us a product of collective wisdom.
The author is tranchant – “ the virtual work is not working”. He brings compelling arguments as to why. “Here’s the main lesson: If you can possibly begin a relationship of any importance in person, you should do so. Period, full stop, end of discussion.” I am fully with him on this.
I found an abundance of great advice and tools here: a revealing empathy quiz, how to create and manage your online persona, where to get started with your remote team, temperature taking at the start of virtual meetings, tips for business email writing, how to manage audioconferences etc.
The webinar got a separate chapter. I was bothered by this new form of “communication” and the author articulated it so well all that was nagging me: “ The webinar is simply a disembodied voice from a relative stranger, emotions stripped out, leaking out of a computer or phone. Or worse—a computer phone.” He calls webinars a “form of torture”. So next time you want to plan a webinar, think twice. I will, definitely.
The book was a page-turner for me. On every page I found tips and valuable advice which is gold for a project manager with remote teams spread on different continents.
“No” – the project manager’s best friend?
I remember my first change request: “We need the center to host 150 people, 50 more than initially planned, which means building one extra wing.” That would have increased the budget by 30%. It was unrealistic, given the budget cycle. I had to ask another colleague from the regional coordination to say “No”. Then I came across Peter Taylor’s book ““The project manager who smiled” where I read: “The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is ‘No’.
Project managers get often requests like: “We want these new features to the product. And by the way, why doesn’t the software have these new reporting tools we just adopted?!” or “We liked the study visit. We would like to go on one more by the end of the year.”
These are not Christmas letters to Santa. Yet, it is pretty close. In the course of project implementation, beneficiaries tend to try to get more than initially planned. And it’s normal for them to try, for different reasons. I usually do not questions their motives. Not my job. My project manager’s job is to give them what we agreed, when we agreed and for the budget we agreed, without jeopardising the expected quality.
Because the project manager is not Santa, it’s ok to say “No”. There are a number of ways to say “No” by considering the repercussions on the project and ultimately the beneficiary. The most important part is to have the beneficiary understand why the project manager says “No”. Reference to facts or similar past experience may support the understanding of pragmatic beneficiaries. One approach is to show what would happen if “yes” would be the answer.
Let’s take one of the wishes from the above list. “Yes” to an extra wing would mean delayed opening of the temporary detention centre (due to reopening of the construction authorisation procedure etc.) and increased risks of revolt at the current facilities, which hold 100 people in less than acceptable conditions. Data shows that over the last three years the number of incomers is stable and the documents processing rates have improved. Therefore, the centre’s capacity is aligned with the demand. It worked in a project I managed years ago with a data-adept beneficiary.
When the beneficiary is guided by emotional or more personal motives, he/she may not hear /want to hear a reasoned “No”. The costs of “No” can be also high. For example, it asks to choose a certain consultant/service provider. A “No”, even if demonstrated by strictly adhered to procurement procedures and open competition rules, can have the beneficiary complain to the project sponsor and/or lead to the rejection to work with the chosen consultant/service provider. Each project is different and each beneficiary’s powers are context specific, so careful consideration is warranted. What I found important in such situations is to be as open and transparent about these kind of requests with all concerned. It cost me once a friendship, but then it was not perhaps the kind of friendship I would keep.
A “No” does not need to be brutal and cutting-off. One soft way of saying “No” is to help the beneficiary find another project who can accommodate the request. It will bring value added through networking to the relationship with the beneficiary, in addition to the opportunity for a good collaboration with another project/partner.
Networking in projects
As a preschooler, I was best friends with our teacher’s son, Andrei. It was particularly helpful at disciplining times. “If you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the babies’ class” was the harshest penalty on earth for us. At the slightest sign of the “penalty” approaching, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s discontent). “Ok, you two go back to class. The rest – off you go”. This relationship brought to both of us many perks in those pre-school years.
As we find out in adulthood, networking does not come that easy, at least not to all of us. “Why on earth?” “How? How do I start the conversation?”. “What if they will think I am too pushy?” etc are the usual introverts’ inner talks at networking events. I’ve been there. Done that. In time, I learned that the initial contact struggle was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network is the hardest part. It takes time and effort.
It is self-explanatory that projects do not exist in a vacuum and networking is part of the project manager’s job. “How good are you at networking?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews.
Networks help in projects. Knowing the right person in the right place at the right time helps solve and/or prevent lots of issues. Networks also contribute to the change the project works for.
To make a network work it needs not to be self-serving. The perks of networking need to bring mutual advantages and lasting benefits to those involved and the professional community at large. And it needs to be clean of any allegations of inappropriate actions.
Mary was managing a multi-million project whose success depended on a vast network of Government officials. She knew some of them through previous professional contacts. The majority though were totally new both in their jobs and to the project.
She did her homework and found out whom from her network she could approach to help her gain access to the rest. Her first strategy of meetings over coffee and introductions at official receptions was successful. She moved to the next step and asked the most influential project partner to convene a meeting with all, to make it official through a charter signed by all. It was an important milestone for setting the common goals and demonstrating the benefits of the network and the project.
As the project progressed, some inevitable hurdles emerged and the network kept changing as the commitment of some of its members to common goals changed due to Government reshuffles. Mary kept true to the charter and continued to pro-actively engage the members of the network at levels which worked: one-to-one, smaller groups, entire network. In the end, keeping the network consistently functioning for the entire duration of the project paid dividends, as its members demonstrated a sufficient degree of maturity for a more advanced phase of the project.
The story of a book which saw the light in lockdown
On a bright April day, as I was casually browsing Linkedin for updates, I noticed a post by Peter Taylor:
A month into full lockdown, my brain jump at it with delight. “A legacy-book to be published in 21 days? Phew! Why so long?!” I thought to myself. So, I responded to the challenge and so did 55 other project managers across industries from around the world.
“The Projectless Manager: Inspirational Thoughts from a World of Project Managers” is now on Amazon, both in paperback and for Kindle.
It is dedicated to “A global community of health carers and key workers. Its proceeds go to NHS. The book is, as Peter puts it, “unique ‘in the moment’ and ‘of the moment’ book.”
It was such a by-the-book project by itself: on time, within budget and objective – achieved, all this with members of a tribe who basically only know each other by Linkedin profiles.
I have to mention kids here. Those who know me, know that I am a full-time kids’ advocate. The cover is a result of a challenge for 9 year olds. So, it is also an inter-generational act of contribution and sharing. Kudos to kids!
Managing the “No”
Learning to say “No” can be a vital skill for a project manager. Learning to deal with “No” on the receiver’s end is equally important.
There are many “No”s a project managers finds him/herself obliged to deal with. It could be a “No” to additional funds, or to budget revisions, or to deadline extensions. Or a “No” from a service provider to a request to speed up the delivery. Or a “No” from a team member.
How do you deal with “No” on the receiving end? Is it “I do not take “No” for an answer? Or “How could you, after all I’ve done for you?” Or “Wait until your boss learns about it!” Or a blanc staring, Scarlett’s style?
With experience, you’ll learn to anticipate “No”s coming your way and you’ll deal proactively with it.
Here is a story:
The project sponsor asked for a project on three sites in three different countries. Each had a resident rep of the sponsor. As we started work, the representative of the sponsor on one of the sites changed and with him – the expectations.
We re-entered into negotiations, with some heavy weights on our side. During an intense exchange, it became clear that we are moving nowhere. They said “No” to all our proposals. We dropped that site. We still kept the two other project sites with plenty of opportunities to do good. It also freed some of our resources, thanks to which we launched a regional platform.
We kept the loyalty of our clients from the dropped site. And to compensate the local stakeholders for the lost opportunities, we invited them to the other sites to benefit from the products we delivered.
Couple of years later I met the sponsor’s rep and it gave me great pleasure to share all the good things we did on the other two project’s sites and the regional spin off.
Emergency exit? Make it organised
As deconfinments start making room around the world, with some degree of clarity, it is time to put in place project management measures for an organised, to the extent possible, return to office work.
Over the past week I kept getting fellow colleagues questions about exiting this emergency. While my advice matched the situation of each particular project, I noticed are a number of common approaches across industries.
Here are 9 tips for an organised exit:
1. Focus on team members. People will come out of this changed in one way or another. Bear that in mind and pile up on your compassion resources. You may also want to know more about their families and the struggles they went through during this period.
2. Make use of your notes over the past two months. Did you notice new skills and abilities of team members? Is perhaps a rethinking of your traditional project roles timely? For example, if a team leader became more productive during the confinement, he/she might be wanting a more executive role. Or if a software developer manifested leadership skills, he/she might be ready for a team leader role. Did the project assistant outgrow his/her role and is ready for a different role? Look around with your talent-seeking eyes.
3. If you had to cut corners in procurement, which I hope you did not, make sure proper justifications are on record and well filed. Integrity should never be compromised, even in times of emergencies.
4. If you and your teams return to work, you may want to get to there first, to greet and welcome them. If it is your responsibility, make sure all safety and hygiene conditions are met. If there is an Organisation-wide policy, make sure all team members are aware about it. If your team returns to a location different from yours, you may want to order something online to greet them. It could be as symbolic as a new office plant or coffee from a nearby coffeeshop. Good for local business. Great for team’s morale.
5. Revisit the communication channels and see together with your teams which are to be kept and which will be ditched.
6. Make plans. And make plans B. Here is still a lot of uncertainty around the situation. Planning to hold meetings and go on business trips? Leave them for later and watch for border policies of countries of your clients. Some countries have reintroduced visas (e.g. Kazakhstan). Check on those as well.
7. Have a clear plan for priorities on the critical path of the project. Check on your first milestone after deconfinment. Communicate clearly to your sponsor, clients and other important partners.
8. Scan the environment for eventual “under water mines”. Video and audio was great in remote work. Yet these means of communication are prone to breed misunderstandings and frustrations. Simply because the screen makes it harder to interpret visual clues, such as body posture and physical gestures. Make sure there is no conflict in the air. Or if there is, manage it pro-actively.
9. Decide on what kind of leader you want to be from now on: an effective manager who gets the job done or an innovative anticipator?
Let’s project some fun
Who said teleworking is time to slow-down?!
Resilience in time of crisis
I wrote this piece couple of years ago https://myprojectdelight.com/2016/08/01/resilience/. I still rely on the same guiding principles.
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