Archive for the ‘Project Management’ Tag

Unleash performance

Every company wants to improve margins, be more agile and generate higher levels of innovation — and they often spend a considerable amount of effort trying to get there. Improving business performance, however, is easier said than done. The executives we speak with bemoan their organization’s challenges such as lack of flexibility, poor employee engagement, and stagnant productivity. Is this feedback the entire story, or does something else account for the gap between intent and results?

Any productivity and performance discussion inevitably comes down to what the employee is doing and how does the organization enable their success. When we ask workers what frustrates them we get an earful. The first culprit is their long task list, which often limits focus and follow through on any one activity. Their second frustration is the need to adhere to corporate policies and practices that seem to be disconnected with their performance priorities and the firm’s strategic goals. Both these issues have a basis in two important but often unexplored areas.

Psychological barriers Individual frustration with their workload has some form of psychological underpinning. While many managers complain about being overloaded with responsibilities, very few are willing to jettison any of them. For one thing, they are hesitant to stop things because they don’t want to admit that they are doing low-value or unnecessary work. This is especially true in recessionary times or when firms are in cost-cutting mode. Second, some employees are workaholics who take pride in having a full plate. These individuals will take on more work even when they know it’s counter-productive for them or the company. Finally, many people fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy i.e. they are reluctant to quit something after they have invested so much time and reputation in it. Productivity strategies that fail to address these psychological considerations will likely fail.

Organizational dynamics Well-meaning, but onerous, corporate norms and practices can drag down operational performance and drive up hidden costs. Examples of these obligations include the need to regularly engage multiple stakeholders for input or buy-in even when they are not critical to an initiative’s outcome, or; the requirement to perform certain time-consuming, administrative tasks that generate more effort and cost than they were intended to save. These types of over-management can have unexpected consequences. For one, it creates an organizational paradox: companies regularly start new things — forms, committees, initiatives — but have a much harder time stopping ones that exist. The result is ever-increasing complexity. Furthermore, when managers over-react to problems by instituting new policies or processes, they can inadvertently reduce business performance by distracting people from their objectives, fragmenting their effort and slowing down operational tempo. Leaders need to carefully consider the long-term implications before adding or changing processes and practices.

The interplay of all of these factors drive organizational complexity, extend project lead times and foster operational inefficiency. Given the powerful institutional and psychological factors, how can you unshackle your organization?

Plan better

Leaders need to take into account their firm’s actual capabilities and capacity during their planning exercises. This allows them to better match their resources and skills with project and activity demands. Furthermore, using portfolio management methodologies can help pre-empt misaligned priorities and resource conflicts.

Tweak the performance management system

There is a strong correlation between what workers are measured on and how they behave. Many companies evaluate employee performance based on effort and number of tasks, not results or value. While effort should count for something, performance measurement systems must prioritize individual value creation on strategic or “lights on” activities that link directly to key goals and key performance indicators, not “busy work.”

Focus on strategic execution

As every company knows, execution is often the difference between a winning strategy and business failure. Looking at execution “strategically” and not as an afterthought can significantly improve project outcomes and reduce cost. For example, there should be clear visibility across the organization to what is being done, where and by whom with particular clarity and alignment as to “who owns what” decisions and interdependencies. All projects and practices should be regularly evaluated for relevance and efficient deployment. Finally, each project and committee should have a charter, which stipulates end-of-life dates so people understand things come to an end.

Address collectively

The best way to accelerate individual and initiative performance — given their psychological and cross-functional basis — is to employ a cross-functional team to analyze and tackle the root cause problems. This approach, though time-consuming, ensures issues become visible, collaboration is maximized and cross-organizational action is triggered.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc., web site.

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In praise of middle managers

If the popularity of Dilbert cartoons is any indication, middle managers do not enjoy a sterling reputation.  They are often perceived as bumbling bureaucrats who get in the way of the real work being done in the sales, production or finance departments.  New Wharton Business School research published in their Knowledge@Wharton newsletter may change that perception. The findings suggest that middle managers have a greater impact on company performance than the business strategy, organizational structure or contributions from individual innovators and leaders.

The author, management professor Ethan Mollick, studied the role of individual, team and strategic contributions on firm performance in the computer game industry.  Specifically, he looked at “how performance changes as you combine different people in different companies in different ways.” He used the revenue of each company, controlling for costs, to measure corporate performance. Mollick’s research focused on the development of individual games over a 12 year period.  These projects represented $4B of revenue and included 537 individual producers, 739 individual designers and 395 companies.

Mollick’s findings negated conventional wisdom that says: 1) performance differences between firms are due mainly to organizational factors – such as business strategy, leadership and practices – rather than to differences among employees and; 2) middle managers are typically interchangeable between companies, possessing few unique attributes that propel project success. Mollick concluded that it was middle managers, rather than innovators or company strategy, who best explained the differences in corporate performance. Within the research, managers accounted for 22.3% of the variation in revenue among projects, as opposed to just over 7% explained by innovators and 21.3% explained by the organization itself.

“Far from being interchangeable,” Mollick writes, middle managers “uniquely contribute to the success or failure of a firm…. Additionally, even in a young industry that rewards creative and innovative products, innovative roles explain far less variation in firm performance than do [middle] managers.”  While innovators may come up with new games and new concepts, middle managers assume the more crucial role of project manager i.e. executing the initiatives.  Specifically, they decide which ideas are given resources and figure out how to coordinate various initiatives within the larger organization.  Other essential roles played by middle managers included motivating the team, managing budgets, ensuring a free flow of information and facilitating “collective creativity.”  Fortunately for most employees and organizations, these are teachable skills.

In order to see if these skills were transferable, Mollick analyzed individuals who moved between companies. He found that middle managers who switched employers had an even larger impact on performance than those who remained within organizations. “This is not about a person being a good fit in just one specific organization. Their skills are useful anywhere.” It’s more evidence that managers are not “cogs in a machine. There is something innate in them that make them good at what they do.”  A middle management “skill set” appears to be a prerequisite for driving performance in industries and fields that value knowledge, problem-solving and collaboration, like software, advertising, life sciences and professional services.

The above conclusions, however, do not necessarily translate to scale-driven, process-based industries. In these enterprises, Mollick writes, “Individual workers are ultimately replaceable and interchangeable with others who have received the same extensive training.” The business model “does not rely on any individual worker’s skills but rather firm-level processes to hire and train the appropriate individuals for the appropriate roles.”

Mollick’s conclusions have a number of organizational implications:

  1. Pay closer attention to hiring and fostering the right skill set, and less so on corporate fit;
  2. Link a manager’s decision and information rights to their true role and responsibilities;
  3. Align a middle manager’s performance and reward system to a project’s revenue contribution.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

Nagging employees can improve their performance

Conventional wisdom says that employees disengage when their managers frequently repeat the same messages.  In this line of thinking, people would view repetitive communicating as nagging and tune out.  Worst case, nagging would breed resentment of the manager and create strife. Perhaps this is the case, but do the benefits of redundant communications outweigh its perceived challenges?  New research out of The Harvard Business School explored the impact of persistent communications on message acceptance and effectiveness.

The researchers studied the daily communication patterns of 13 project managers in 6 firms in the IT, health care and telco sectors.  The findings were conclusive:  those managers who are deliberately redundant communicators drive their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.  However, there was a caveat. The amount of direct organizational power had a major influence on the frequency and type of communication as well as the pace of team performance.

In many companies, PMs do not possess power over the people and projects they coordinate. Since they lack direct authority, these managers understand that they must work harder at influencing and directing others.  As such, they will attempt to enlist support from team members through more repetitive communications.  For example, they will time first and second messages close together, typically starting with a phone call or face-to-face meeting followed up by an e-mail.  Not surprisingly, higher frequency communications will create a greater sense of individual urgency and quicker follow up, very often leading to higher team performance.

On the other hand, PMs who possess direct power will tend to communicate less frequently, at least initially.  Relying more on their formal authority, these PMs will often delay communicating.  Typically they would only send one e-mail, assuming that one notice is enough to incite an employee to undertake their task.  Because a sense of urgency is not always created, the recipient may not feel a strong impetus to action.  As a result, team performance can suffer in the short term, forcing the PM to re-exert their authority to get the project back on track.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that message clarity mattered less than repetition in boosting team performance. It’s not the message but rather the frequency of the message that matters in driving results. 

In spite of the differences in communication styles, the study found that both types of PMs delivered on the same deadlines and budget goals with the same frequency regardless of the amount of power.  However, managers who communicated more frequently over different channels got employees to perform at a higher level, and with less mop-up needed later.  While some employee resentment would naturally occur, the performance benefits of persistent communications were clear.

How can managers leverage the power of redundant communications without breeding antagonism?

  • Include and publicize high-frequency communication strategies as part of a standard project management or employee communication process;
  • Utilize advanced and automated collaboration management tools that makes the software the nagger;
  • Make high frequency communication strategies a part of standard employee training and on-boarding.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.