Useful strategies for project and program managers

My group at Adobe recently held a Program Manager Summit, an action-packed and informative two days during which we heard from speakers on topics from influencing without authority to change management to scrum. We also discussed The Happiness Advantage, prompted by a recent session with its author, Shawn Achor.

Although we covered a variety of topics, some common themes emerged that I think are valuable to all project managers — both at work and in the rest of life. But then, I think that just about any situation lends itself to project management. So here are some principles to follow in managing projects, and sometimes even managing life:

Turn problems into opportunities

Cultivating a positive attitude toward problems, as Shawn Achor advises, can make you happier and therefore more successful. This sounds simple, but it does require a shift in mindset. Some simple techniques, if practiced regularly, can help you achieve this in your own life. In the workplace, you can also find techniques to guide your team in this direction.

Scrum, an agile project management methodology, provides a framework that encourages people to move from complaining to thinking about how to solve problems. The Scrum Master focuses on removing obstacles, and in the daily meetings, team members are encouraged to help others find solutions to the issues they’re encountering.

Another approach is to encourage people, instead of criticizing an idea, to come up with a better one. Try asking everyone to rate the idea from 1 – 10, but then they must identify what would make it a 10.

In change management, resistance to a change is sought out rather than avoided. This allows you to address the issues and help move people from resistance to acceptance, or from the perception of a problem to perception of an opportunity. When you do this, sometimes those who’d initially resisted the most become the best allies in promoting a change.

Cultivate social bonds

I’ve already mentioned Shawn Achor’s assertion that happiness leads to success, and apparently this applies to the success of teams as well as that of individuals. And it turns out that one of the greatest predictors of happiness is the strength of one’s social network. So it should not be surprising that teams with stronger social ties are also more productive, and that part of the role of a Scrum Master is to help their team goof off together.

When people get busy and resources are tight, opportunities to socialize are generally the first things to go. But it’s a mistake to forego chances for personal connections and team building, which can help foster trust and healthy conflict, two of the foundations of a good team. If your team includes people in different time zones, don’t despair; we’ve found that social gatherings over video conference are surprisingly fun and effective.

Promote communication and transparency

In Scrum, the daily check-ins and other regular meetings encourage communication among all team members. And communication is at the core of change management — in order for people to understand a change and get behind it, they must get a clear explanation of the vision and business case that are prompting the change, as well as a roadmap for how the change will be accomplished.

Commitment Curve courtesy of Accenture

A useful change management tool is the Commitment Curve, which helps you to check on where people are in their resistance to or support of a change. It’s a good idea to assign people on your team to check in regularly with specific key influencers or stakeholders about where they are on the curve. This way, you can help people move up the curve toward support of the change, and if you find that people have slipped to a lower part of the curve, you have a chance to help them move back up. In our group, we’ll be assigning each program manager a set of people to check in with about key changes, which happen so often our fast-paced workplace.

Seek customer and stakeholder feedback

An important part of communicating effectively is to seek feedback from your stakeholders, as noted in the discussion of the Commitment Curve. In Scrum, feedback is frequent and is used to course-correct. This need not be confined to product development, the usual domain of Scrum. I can think of examples when it would have saved a lot of time and headaches in our group to test drive a new process before rolling it out — allowing us to find and fix issues early, before people needed to start using the process.

Fixes to top pain points for stakeholders sometimes turn out to be easy and cheap to implement. In Scrum, those top concerns are given high priority, so that the customer can see a fix early on. In any case, you can’t address your stakeholders’ needs if you don’t know what they are, so it’s crucial to seek their input and address it as best you can.

In addition, being aware of your stakeholders’ needs can help when you have to influence without authority, a standard situation for project managers. One of the best pieces of advice we got at the Summit was to ask, What’s in it for them? If you can help people get what they need, that will help you to influence them and the progress of your project.


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