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What 2020 Did To Project Management (& A Way Forward)

2020 was massively disruptive for digital project management to say the least! It’s now time to take stock and find a path forward. There’s much you can’t control. But you have more control than you think. Keep reading for tips on how to make 2021 a bit easier on you than 2020.

2020: A Year Of Disruption

Sometime around March or April last year your teams became distributed overnight. We saw with our clients a period during that fateful Spring when companies became frozen in place, like a deer in the headlights. First there was a period of chaos. And when the smoke cleared at last, all of your priorities had changed.

Deadlines and goals had shifted as companies explored the art of the possible in an environment no one had chosen.

At the same time, the pandemic created some big winners and some big losers. Obviously tech companies like Zoom and Slack benefitted. Zoom became a household name overnight. Even your grandmother learned how to use it!

google trends graph showing increase in searches for Zoom

This is a Google Trends graph showing interest for “Zoom” over the past 5 years, with a huge spike during the onset of the pandemic.

Amazon is another obvious winner in a world where people don’t want to leave the house but still want to buy things. Apple was supposed to be a loser on the assumption that no one would buy devices in a down economy, but people were willing to part with their stimulus checks to buy their products. They wanted them all the more while they’re sitting on the couch at home.

Said Apple CEO Tim Cook about his company’s recent performance: “Apple capped off a fiscal year defined by innovation in the face of adversity with a September quarter record, led by all-time records for Mac and Services.”

Individuals who were project managers or who were once part of co-located project teams also had winners and losers. People without kids at home were able to make the switch more easily than people who were now saddled not only with their demanding jobs but with making sure their kids went to online classes. Those with long commutes were losers, and now they are winners.

One thing we’re sure of: the world of work will never be the same.

What Does This Mean For Digital Project Managers?

These cataclysmic changes mean that project managers are facing factors that are far outside of their control, and well beyond their powers of prediction. You’re now in a storm-tossed ship that’s taking on water. Waves are breaking over the ship, but you’re still down in the engine room trying to keep the machines working.

Since most project managers often have less say in project priorities, resource allocation, or objectives, it can seem helpless to feel the panic on the ship when there’s little you can do.

But you’re not helpless. Motivating teams and keeping them on track is your job and should be part of your skillset. And research shows that keeping teams on track, motivated, and aimed at the right goals is at risk in distributed teams.

In 2020, consultant Andrew Mawson examined numerous published studies on how distributed teams work. Mawson found that distributed digital teams had six vulnerabilities. Two of the most important were social cohesion and vision/goal clarity.

Social Cohesion: It Takes A Team

Social cohesion in your organization is about seeing your colleagues and other stakeholders as complete human beings.

Strong social cohesion correlates with motivated project teams that put in the extra time and care to realize excellence.

When you’re working from home, day becomes night very quickly. Even project managers, who are the glue that make digital projects happen, can get lost in their own bubble

What begins to go missing when we become alienated like this is the meaning, the purpose that motivates people on your teams to be their most creative.

Vision/Goal Clarity: Get Aligned

Unless the vision and the goals are clear and reinforced, your team will tend to drift. They may get the project deliverables in on time. But are you really getting the best, the cleanest, and the most innovative work out of your team?

It might seem that there’s nothing digital project managers can do to influence these factors, but this is not the case. There are steps project managers can take to address the challenges of maintaining social cohesion and keeping a tight focus on clear goals and a clear vision.

A Side Note On Encouraging Social Cohesion

Some companies hold virtual “town meetings,” remote events that reinforce the company culture and create a sense of belonging to a larger picture.

One tech company had such town meetings before the COVID-19 pandemic. When they went remote with these meetings they found that long PowerPoints didn’t work (did they ever?). The main thrust of these meetings, they found, was to maintain a larger context for their teams and individuals, and this, in turn, encouraged that “we’re all in this together” feeling.

Another company, a semiconductor brand, found that the chat feature in Zoom and other tools made their town hall remote events more effective than their pre-pandemic ‘live’ meetings. Speaking in a large group is a common fear, and the chat feature made people feel comfortable offering a question or a comment. Attendance at the meetings increased when they went remote.

Project Management 2021: A Path Forward For The New World Of Work

Here’s what you can do to move your team into this new world of work.

  • Develop team agreements around asynchronous communication, core working hours, Slack, etc. Put these working agreements in writing and take them seriously. These are the ground rules that will help teams be more productive if you are consistent in applying them. For example, per agreement, one manager of a global team I know takes off three hours in the middle of the day because their face time is mornings (Europe) and afternoons (Asia).
  • Create a virtual recognition board accessible to all team members to visualize wins, joys, and other small things to celebrate every day. You might have had a similar, physical bulletin board in an office where you shared, for example, product announcements or press coverage, news about an award a team member won, or just a task sheet of what’s getting done that week. Create a similar shared space online.
  • At minimum, allow a few minutes for socializing at every meeting, and create space between meetings. Popcorn is a fun game to play where the team shares an unknown passion and the team member picks the next person to share — like popping popcorn.
  • Teams, Zoom, and Google Chat are part of work – but understand that it’s okay to take a break from the camera when you need it. Some companies are moving toward 50 minute meetings with a rest period between meetings. Zoom fatigue is real but there are known cures for it. (see sidebar below).
  • Create “mission moments” at the start of team meetings. For meetings that occur monthly or quarterly, have members each talk about what they did that supported the mission since the last time they met. It helps align team members and reminds them of the overall mission.
  • Create shared, team experiences in the virtual world. For example in a lunch meeting, plan a delivery of the same kind of pizza, or sandwiches and snacks to each member so that they will have something tangible to share (or share a simple lunch recipe beforehand). Shared experience brings people together.
  • Bring your whole self to work. Turn off those annoying virtual backgrounds. Encourage participants in virtual meetings to use real backgrounds (or at least pictures they have taken) that show their whole context — not a canned background. Authenticity, as well as richness in communicating with others, builds connections.
A Tip For Avoiding Zoom Fatigue

It is unnatural for people to stare at themselves, and one another, for long periods of time. And yet this is what tools such as Zoom seem designed to make people do.

A psychiatrist came up with a way to use Zoom with his patients that limited the awkwardness and fatigue that often happens with long exposure to such communication tools. Both he and his patients faced away from the camera. Then they could face each other if they wished, but didn’t need to look directly at each other, or at themselves.

Consider the following steps to mitigate Zoom fatigue:

  • Set your camera at an angle or block self-view if necessary. Although face-to-face interactions are richer and more successful, you can revert to voice only communication if necessary.
  • Put space between meetings so you’re not on Zoom all day.
  • Shorter, more frequent communication is better.

Focus on What You Can Do

Moving ahead from the disruption of 2020 to the opportunity of 2021 means staying open, being flexible, and keeping focused on what you can control.

Although you’re not captain of the ship, you’re the commander of your team and your project. You can set the operating platform for the team itself.

It is in your power to set ground rules for your team and your projects. You can create an environment where you and your team are successful both individually and collectively.

Accept what you can’t control, change what you can. Remember that social cohesion and goal clarity are most threatened when teams go virtual. It is in your power to influence these variables. The power is yours.

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John Carter

About John Carter

John Carter is Founder of TCGen Inc. and a widely respected expert on product development. He is a co-inventor of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. He has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M. He is the author of Innovate Products Faster, featuring more than 40 tools for accelerating product development speed and innovation.

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