AMA’s Ask the Experts: Robert Smith on Demonstrating the Value of Projects Virtually

Jul 20, 2020


By AMA Staff

On June 24, AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Project Management series debuted with How to Demonstrate the Value of Your Project Virtually. The series is an exploration of project management topics, with a special focus on virtual management. The guest expert, Robert Smith, is a PMP and technical, information, training and project management consultant. The webcast was facilitated by Dan Goeller, AMA Learning Solutions Manager for Project Management. 

Goeller began by asking Smith to share some of the common themes or challenges he’s been hearing from project managers in terms of working in a virtual environment.

“One of the biggest challenges has to do with managing your projects remotely over a long period of time, and some of the issues that come up from not actually being there,” replied Smith. “I’m finding that a robust project plan is something that has come to be vital. One of the things we’re looking to do here is make sure we can demonstrate that we’re able to manage our projects virtually and adding value. [In person], any holes in the project plan can sometimes be filled in by simply having a walk around the office. That contact is kind of lost to us now. So, the precision of the project plan has become increasingly important in this current environment.”

“Any strategies specific to the robust project plan?” asked Geller.

“To me, a project plan is not just the Gantt Chart,” explained Smith. “A lot of people seem to think it is. The Gantt Chart is the schedule. You want a fully-loaded Gantt chart—with all the deliverables, work packages, and activities identified—keyword there is ‘all’—including all the project management activities that are supposed to be taking place, and the start and end dates of each of these, who is supposed to be doing it, and how long each is going to take.”

Smith elaborated by adding, “However, there are other elements to consider. We have to make sure the project charter has been well developed. Another significant thing that’s very important is the stakeholder register. So it’s making sure we’ve got the plan mapped with all the various components of it, all the way through from the project charter to closing out the project itself. Having said that, there are certain elements in the project plan that, in this environment, take on a new dimension. One of these is the communications plan.”

The communications plan is a subset of the overall project plan, according to Smith. “We need to make sure that this communications plan, with a great deal of clarity, lays out what has to be communicated during the lifespan of the project, to whom, from whom, the modality over which it’s going to be communicated, and the frequency with which we’re going to communicate,” said Smith. “This is a big deal. If we’re working in an office environment, it’s very easy—if we’re not sure of something, just to go around or pick up the phone, which might not be available to us when we’re working virtually, particularly over different time zones. So, I usually like to see the communications plan as a table format with what has to be communicated, to and from whom, etc., and it’s separate from the Gantt Chart. It’s not in the project management software, per se. It’s simply in Microsoft Project, for example.”

“One of the best ways of working out what has to be communicated is to make a CBS, or Communication Breakdown Plan,” Smith said. “It’s organized like a work breakdown structure but it’s about what has to be communicated, organized by particular areas. For example, risk would be one area. Changes would be another area, and you can even break that down further into scope changes, resource budget changes, and so on, and this gives us a really good idea of what it is we’re supposed to be communicating.”

By way of an example, Smith mentioned a project he worked on for a large firm several years ago, in which he “was working out why projects fail, and one of the overwhelming reasons was that they had a poor communications plan. You might be able to get around that in a small group of 5 or 6 people, but the minute you start getting more people, this is where that documented [communications plan] adds a new dimension. If you’re a project manager and you have a large project with 40 or 50 people working on it, what I strongly advise is break it down and see if you can make it 6 or 7 people reporting about certain things: ‘Maureen, you’re going to be my go-to person for testing. Joseph, you’re going to be my go-to person for risk.’ Key people streamline the communications plan.” 

Goeller commented, “Accomplishing successful communication through others is in a similar vein with people management as it is with project management.” 

“Your Gantt Chart itself can also be a very significant communications tool,” said Smith, “assuming it’s published, and people can see from that who’s supposed to be doing what and when. There is one caveat: Everybody who’s looking at this needs to know how to read a Gantt Chart. There are a large number of people out there who don’t know how to read a Gantt Chart properly.” 

Speaking about work-life balance, Smith was emphatic about its importance to project success: “The idea here is knowing how to turn work off. We’re used to, as project managers, always being ‘on’—but now that we’re working from home, for most of us, I think there are some significant issues around this that we need to be able to practice to make sure that we don’t suffer from burn-out in terms of negatively impacting our own project management capabilities.”

In the virtual project management training sessions that Smith leads, he noted that he is often questioned about how to deal with the problem of turning off the work.

“Several little ways have helped me deal with this,” he notes, explaining that he works in his own “escape room” where he’s cut off from other household members, adding “but a lot of people don’t have that. So their rooms are going to have multi-tasking. I make a point of getting my lighting, my laptop, etc., all set up and tested about an hour beforehand, and I change clothes for working hours. This is what I would wear if I were in an office. At the end of the day, I put this away, and my laptop goes off. The table I use goes away, and my library becomes a library.”

Smith reiterated the importance of drawing boundaries, mentioning that there are other ways to do so, and everyone must find the way that works best for them. 

“At 4:30 on Fridays, my work cell phone goes off,” he says. “[The work] normally can wait until Monday morning.”
“That’s very brave of you!” commented Goeller. “I would be nervous to turn mine off. In a multi-national world, it’s difficult sometimes.” 

Noted Smith, “One of the ways I learned about the significance of this: one of my clients several years ago, the owner of the organization, insisted that at 5 o’clock on Friday, all of the servers go down and don’t come up again until 8 am on Monday. It does make a difference, just being able to turn off completely.”

“It keeps you fresh so that you can bring your best self to those hours that you’re working,” Goeller agreed. “So, instead of working for a quantity of time, work for a quality of time, so that’s how you can demonstrate the value you bring.”

“Most people have a finite number of hours in the day at which they can perform at an effective level,” concluded Smith. 

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AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Project Management Series is complimentary. Each webcast is available on demand after its initial broadcast for a limited time.