Five Free Collaboration Tips to Improve Your Project Meetings

September 18, 2017

Is good collaboration really imperative for project success? I’ve worked on a few successful projects where there was little collaboration, and I’ve worked on some unsuccessful projects where it felt like the team was highly collaborative. So the answer really depends on how you define success.

Are Task Management Tools Enough?

September 11, 2017

I recently talked with the CEO of a business (175 employees; $22M – 25M in total revenues) about their project management needs. The company doesn’t do project work for clients. The business is focused on operations. Still, there are a variety of projects underway. For example, developing a new on boarding process for new employees, evaluating new machinery needs, integrating some grant funded artificial intelligence equipment to analyze how robots might enhance processes, and a couple of smaller technology projects.

The CEO is thinking about switching to Trello. I love Trello, and have used it myself. I love the visual aspects of Trello. And yet, I was quick to comment that Trello is a task management and collaboration tool. It is not a project management tool.

Though some project managers claim to use it on their projects, they often admit that they aren’t really doing project management with Trello. They are using add-ons, templates, or Google docs to manage the rest of the project pieces.

Our conversation inspired me to think about how much project management is really needed on these kinds of projects. In this blog, I pose eight questions that readers should consider, as they ponder how much project management is really needed and whether a good task management and collaboration tool is sufficient.

Are you issuing a project charter for all new projects?

The CEO mentioned a project that was not going well. He was repeatedly hearing that people outside of the project team had no idea the project was happening. This meant that emails to other department heads, seeking information, were not getting the proper attention. I asked about the project charter, and learned that they don’t use charters in the way that I advocate.

A project charter is an incredibly valuable tool for ensuring that everyone in an organization knows that a project is about to be launched. Very importantly, it explains why you are doing the project and asks people in the organization to support the project manager and team. If you are unfamiliar with charters, you can read more here.

How are you breaking your project down?

Once you begin a project, particularly a project designed to accomplish something really new, there is the challenge to understand scope. Trained project managers use a work breakdown structure to help with that task. I’ve written about how to create a work breakdown structure here.

Whether you use Trello, Nozbe, SmartSheet, Asana, or any other tool, I still recommend that you use a visual work breakdown structure. I’ve done them in Excel, Visio, or with sticky notes on a white board in a project room. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a list of activities substitutes for a visual document. A picture is worth 1000 words.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a list of activities substitutes for a visual document. A… Click To Tweet

I recommend that teams break down projects enough to estimate the costs for each activity. The key piece here is to distinguish between activities and tasks. Using the Smart Projex approach, activities are the essential work packages needed to accomplish your scope. Tasks are the little things that you need to remember to do. Every one of them is related to one of the activities you identified in your work breakdown structure. If they don’t seem related to the activities, they likely represent scope creep of some sort.

Each activity needs a clear definition of what done looks like. Two to five words on an Excel list probably won’t work. Think very carefully about what the final work product for each activity will look like at completion. This is harder than you might think, but time well spent.

Do you want to understand how your project costs are impacting profitability?

This is a good question to ask early in the process. If you're not billing a client for work that you've done, you may wonder if it is worth the effort to track your costs. Sometimes, it isn’t. But if a substantial part of your costs are being spent on projects, you may want to know how your projects are impacting profitability. And the only real way to do that is to track your costs, including the labor performed by full-time employees.

While I agree that it’s a major pain, it is also a real eye opener when people understand where their time is going. Most of the companies I work with have limited resources and don’t have the financial resources to operate without a budget. And yet, until you really know how much time your full-time staff is spending on your projects, you can’t make intelligent return on investment decisions.

How are you planning to manage your schedule?

No matter what software you use to manage your project, it will not manage the schedule for you. It may generate reports that tell you how far behind you are, and how long it will take to catch up, but producing reports and driving the schedule are not synonymous.

Passing messages back and forth on Slack or on Trello cards may, or may not, represent progress. But what you really need to be doing is ensuring that you are steadily making progress.

I recommend that teams work in time blocks of two weeks, though that can easily be extended if the project is moving slowly. When you break the project down into the essential activities, aim for an activity that can be finished in a single time block. There is something highly motivating about finishing activities, and that motivation inspires others.

Decide how you want to use deadlines and milestones. In my experience, too many deadlines are demotivating. It’s like starting your day with 25 items on your to-do list, and feeling utterly frustrated because you will never get them all done.

What I prefer are a few target deadlines that you can use to guide the project along. It's important to have a clear understanding of the few deadlines that simply cannot be missed. I call these fixed deadlines. And, I like to think of milestones as something so big that completion demands a celebration.

Meetings can be used very effectively to guide a schedule. I’ve written about that here. What kind of reporting are you planning to do? Effective reports can help make your meetings more effective.

As you manage the schedule, guard against scope creep by keeping the team focused on a limited amount of work. If and when it seems appropriate to start working on an activity that is not outlined in your work breakdown structure, have a change management process. I’ve written about that here.

Do you think that risk management is simply a job for the executives? 

From my observations, executives (with the possible exception of young start-up founders), understand that risk management is important. Yet project teams often misunderstand their role. It’s not just the executives who should be doing risk management. It’s the people who are closest to the project work. They are the ones who often see things that could go wrong.

Do you have a plan for how to identify, analyze, and manage your risks? If not, and you want to quickly understand the secret sauce on risk management, check out this blog.

Is someone tracking your procurement contract requirements?

In this particular company, many of their projects involve the acquisition of outside resources, including equipment. I often see teams ignore their contracts. That’s a mistake. Contracts are legal documents. You could be setting your company up for headaches or losses by failing to pay attention to the requirements outlined in your contracts.

If your project manager is not reading the contracts, documenting the requirements, and monitoring them, who is? And do you have a process for properly closing out your contracts? Remember: Contracts are legal documents, with legal obligations.

How are you managing your stakeholders?

Experts disagree on the percentage of time that a good project manager devotes to stakeholder management, but I’ve seen the estimate go as high as 80%. When I watch a project manager sit in his or her office and juggle a Gantt chart schedule, produce earned value management statistics, and analyze detailed critical path diagrams, I’m usually convinced that problems are on the horizon. (If you don’t know what any of that means and you’re spending your time getting good results from your stakeholders, you might want to skip those links.)

Managing stakeholders is about understanding the hot button(s) for each stakeholder on your project. It’s about having a communications plan that works, and yes, I know that communications probably deserves its own discussion. It’s about inspiring your team and developing a culture that encourages the early disclosure of problems. And, it’s about developing a plan for conflict resolution before the conflicts drive a wedge into your team.

When you take into account that many projects, particularly government and non-profit projects, have a lot of stakeholders, there can be massive amounts of information that should not be forgotten. While some tools may provide an online space for recording that information, the tool will not really help you manage your stakeholders. That means awareness, coaching, handholding, and meetings of all types. So, what is your plan?

You will likely need some periodic one-to-one meetings. One time when I strongly recommend them is when you need to introduce a change that will likely be met with resistance.

Do you have an enterprise system for tracking lessons learned?

I rarely see project teams doing a great job in this area. Either they aren’t using any kind of tool to track lessons learned, or they aren't spending time documenting lessons in whatever tool they have. If they are accumulating these valuable lessons in some searchable database, few are referring to it when they start a new project. And so, they admit that they are repeatedly making the same mistakes.

If you or your company is struggling with the confusion between task management and project management, give me a call. Maybe I’ll write about a blog about your company.

Three Questions to Consider Before Embarking On a Continuous Improvement Project

September 4, 2017

Six Sigma, Lean Sigma, Seyfarth Lean, Kaizen, and Legal Lean Sigma are all terms that describe an approach to improving efficiency and effectiveness. While a thesaurus may say "efficiency" and "effectiveness" are synonyms, business writers have coined different definitions. "Effective" means doing the right things and "efficiency" means doing them well. Businesses continue to explore continuous improvement projects, as a means to improving efficiency and effectiveness. And, increasingly, general counsels are asking their law firms to provide greater efficiency and effectiveness. 

Clifford Chance, a top-ten law firm, has developed its own methodology, called "Continuous Improvement." Seyfarth Shaw, an AmLaw 100 firm, has developed SeyfarthLean. Many large businesses tout their investments in Six Sigma, Lean thinking, and project management principles of all types. Certification programs, including those specifically targeted at the legal world, are increasing. While conversations around these topics are on the rise, many law firms remain skeptical. They are trying to avoid devoting valuable resources to something which may just turn out to be yet another fad.

What Division can Teach Project Teams

August 28, 2017
Teach Project Teams

I continue to wrestle with the many divisions in our world. It makes me wonder how project teams should deal with the subject of change. Our divided country and our divided world reflect the difficulty that people have with change. Change is simply hard. In this blog, I discuss my observations on what division can teach project teams. Try these suggestions if your teams are struggling with change or need help knowing how to make the decisions needed to move a project forward.

How to Achieve an Agile Execution on Your Legal Projects

August 21, 2017

This blog is the last in a three-part series on legal project management. If you missed the others, you can read the first one on why improving legal matter management is so hard and the second one, on how to start smart if you want to improve legal matter management. In today’s blog, I offer some suggestions on how to achieve an agile execution on your legal projects. 

Use a time blocking approach with standing meetings.

If you are not going to produce an elaborate schedule, using some kind of software, such as Microsoft Project, how are you going to manage the schedule? Hopefully, you have created the activity breakdown (also called a work breakdown structure or WBS) that I referenced in my second blog and described in more detail here. So, you have a pretty good idea of the different pieces of work that are needed on your matter.

It may be helpful to think of each of these blocks as work that solves a particular problem on your matter, not a little task that needs to be done. The best part about that approach is that solving each of these little problems adds value for the client.

Now, you just need to work in sprints, or time blocks. Typically, I recommend two-week time blocks, but it depends on your project, and how fast things are moving.

At the beginning of each sprint or time block, the team selects the specific activities that it will be working on. It focuses on finishing those activities. The team should resist working on the other activities in order to stay completely focused on the activities that were selected for this time block. You don't want to partially finish a bunch of activities and then not be able to talk about the value you delivered at your next meeting. 

One way to improve your team effectiveness is to use standing meetings. The concept is simple.

Start Smart if You Want to Improve Legal Matter Management

August 14, 2017

Last week, I wrote about why law firms continue to find it hard to embrace legal matter management. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here

Imagine a law firm dashboard that outlined all of your project investments. It would include legal matters, e-discovery, pending client engagements, and your IT, marketing, office relocation and strategic planning projects. Consider how your firm might evolve if you actually had reliable backlog data forecasts for each lawyer and paralegal. How could you better distribute work if you actually knew who was busy, and who was not? How might you assign or outsource work to reduce costs if your teams were fully accountable to your clients on a month-to-month basis? Would you be more transparent with your clients about where things stood?

Now, if you are the client, imagine that same dashboard in your company. Suppose you could track all of your project investments, including a large strategic planning effort, the opening of a new office in Guam, your marketing and advertising ventures, a massive rewriting of your HR policies, a gazillion technology projects, and your legal spending? Could you better insure that your projects are aligned to your corporate strategy? What steps might you take to better control costs? How would you manage your resources better? How might you better communicate with your outside counsel?

Law firms today face increasing competitive pressures, changing technologies, and emerging outsourcing opportunities. Just last week, David Howard, Deputy General counsel of Microsoft, announced that it wants alternative fee arrangements (AFA) on 90% of its work. An increasing use of AFAs requires law firms to manage their matters in a way that the billable hour model does not. Effectively responding to these challenges requires law firms to have better data metrics than they have captured in the past.

In last week’s blog, I explained why the data metrics on a legal matter, managed in Microsoft’s own Project software, are badly flawed. We need a better way. I challenge the leadership at Microsoft to meet me at the table. In the meantime, this blog will offer readers some suggestions on how to improve legal matter management. A smart start is critical for a successful finish.

Is Improving Legal Matter Management Really That Hard?

August 7, 2017

In July 2017, general counsels from 25 major companies announced a data sharing plan to gather intelligence on legal fees, billing rates, and other legal matter management questions. The objective is to measure what is really working and what is not. How can clients improve outcomes and reduce legal spend? How can improved legal matter management help? 

Clearly law firm leaders are anxious. As reported in the American Lawyer, David Rueff, a partner and legal project management officer at Baker Donelson, which has invested heavily in legal project management, reports that this highly anticipated data might be a “wake-up call for all of us. It's the next phase in a dramatically changing market." As noted in the same article, Chris Emerson, of Bryan Cave, while interested in hearing more, expressed concern about the quality of the data. And, Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, noted that there are going to be winners, losers, and opportunities.

In this blog, I will explain why companies are finding it hard to get the results that they are seeking from their law firms. It doesn’t matter whether we call it matter management, legal project management, or LPM, clients want lower costs. So, why is that so hard?

Managing Project Scope and Achieving Agility Are Not Incongruous

July 31, 2017

From a traditional project management perspective, a big part of the job of the project manager is to ensure the scope of the work is well understood, the work is carried out according to the plan, and that it meets the needs of the client (or management). But what happens when your clients’ needs are continuously changing or cannot be understood?

What happens when you are doing an exploratory project – such as trying to develop a new drug for lung cancer? Or suppose you are just exploring whether a particular plant has any peculiar properties that might make it a good candidate for a medical supplement? What happens if you are managing a government project that is trying to develop a plan for improving project management at the Government level, as required by legislation enacted at the end of 2016?

Some would say that using an Agile approach, such as Scrum would be a better approach. Taking an Agile scheduling approach is definitely valuable. But the idea that there is no understanding of the full scope can scare some. When taxpayers or investors are funding your project, you have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the outcomes are worth the investment. Even in this divided world, we can probably agree that a half-built bridge across the Mississippi is pretty worthless.

Can we have an Agile execution and still have a defined scope that is well managed? It takes some work, but I believe you can. Here are some recommendations for managing project scope while achieving agility.


Five Questions to Ask Before You Reset Your Project Baseline

July 24, 2017

In traditional project management, teams go through a process of estimating the costs and the timing of activities. They create a baseline, against which the project is then measured. Experts continue to argue about whether projects should be re-estimated when appropriate. Should we allow teams to change estimates, with or without the consent of clients and/or management, when it becomes clear that the estimate is seriously flawed? Does it matter whether the estimate is flawed due to estimation errors or a change in the project?

The decision on whether to change the baseline can seem complex but it doesn’t need to be hard. You need to have a solid change management procedure and know what you want to achieve in your post project reviews. If you don’t know how to create a change management procedure, read this. In this blog, I outline some questions that you should consider before you make the decision about whether to reset the baseline.