AMA’s Ask The Experts: Top Project Management Professionals Discuss Virtual PM Best Practices

Published: Aug 11, 2020



AMA’s series designed to explore a variety of relevant project management topics, with a special focus on virtual project management, had its fifth Ask the Experts installment on July 22 with the webcast Virtual PM Best Practices Panel Discussion.

The panel featured leading project management authorities from the AMA faculty, including Alana Hill, PMP, author, engineer and consultant; Brian Porter, PMP, PE, and subject matter expert; and Robert Smith, also a PMP, and a technical, information, training and project management consultant.

The panel was moderated by Ask the Experts host and AMA Learning Solutions Manager for Project Management, Dan Goeller. He began the conversation with Ms. Hill, asking her about the importance of interpersonal skills in successful project management.

Goeller: “These soft skills don’t often get a lot of attention in project management. Why is this a mistake, and why are these skills more important than ever?”

Hill: “Project management has evolved as a technically-oriented field. It tends to get overlooked because it’s not necessarily the natural preference for most people in project management. But technical project managers need to [also] have the ability and skill to be able to lead a variety of people. So those soft skills are incredibly essential to the success of project teams.”

Goeller: “[In a previous discussion] We focused on three interpersonal skills: emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship building. For our audience listeners, if they had to choose one to start working on today, where should they start?”

Hill: “I would say start with emotional intelligence. That opens the door to relationship building, to being able to get the most out of everyone on your team. And because project management is a team sport, not only being aware of our own emotions, but also being able to leverage the emotions of others around us, becomes really beneficial.”

Goeller: “It strikes me that now, in this virtual world that we’re living in, there are a lot more challenges for relationship building than ever before. Do you have any suggestions around how, in a virtual world, we can still build those relationships?”

Hill: “There are certain different strategies we can employ. Using virtual happy hours, having those opportunities to connect on a personal level with those that we’re working diligently with. But we don’t want to overuse that because we are in a situation where people are experiencing a lot more work-life blend. So I usually prefer something I’ve been doing in my virtual team leadership for years, which is having virtual water cooler time at the start of our team meetings, having that interpersonal team-building opportunity. As we’re doing that in a virtual environment, it’s important to be intentional about listening more. Virtual ears hear differently. [And] I tell my seminar participants, ‘I don’t know you till I see you, so please turn your video camera on and at least say ‘hi.’” There’s something incredibly valuable about putting your eyes on someone. So when conflict occurs, and it will occur, it allows that to be resolved and handled in a much more relational way.”

Goeller: “Rob Smith, when we spoke last, we talked about demonstrating the value of your project, and we had a specific focus on a robust project plan. Why is it more critical than ever to demonstrate the value of your project?”

Smith: “When I use the word ‘robust,’ what I mean by that is a relatively detailed project plan. I have a slang expression for it: It’s a Gantt chart with all the bells and whistles on it. Not just the list of tasks and when they start and when they end, but their dependencies—who is supposed to be doing what, how many hours of effort they’re supposed to be taking—using all the options available in whatever project management scheduling software you may be using. That robust project plan becomes a powerful communications tool. As people are working in a virtual environment, all those discussions that we used to have—when maybe as we walked by each other’s desks—are no longer taking place. By now, if I’m wondering, ‘What’s so-and-so up to? Where do I fit into all this?’ I can find that easily by looking at my robust, fully-fleshed-out Gantt Chart as part of my overall project plan. [It] can become a very powerful communication tool amongst your project team in its own right. The more attention to the details of planning, the more the project will get done better, faster, and hence add more value to your organization.”

Goeller: “You focused a lot on communication. What are some things to consider as we’re purposely planning what to say, how to say it, when to say it?”

Smith: “From our communications plan itself, which should be part of the overall project plan, we need to make sure we’ve identified what has to be communicated, to whom, from whom, how often, and by what medium. That would be the bare minimum I would expect. Make clear what the objective is of this particular communication session we’re having. We also want to make sure we’re practicing our listening skills tremendously in the virtual environment. We’re missing so much of the “non-verbals,” so we need to plan out more carefully and specifically what we are going to say to achieve these objectives, how we think the receiver of the communication is going to receive this; in other words, practice some empathy with this. And we need to be doubly careful, when we wrap up the communication session with somebody, that we have achieved the objective of what we set out to do.”

Goeller: “Rob, what are some strategies that you’ve been implementing, or you’ve been encouraging, to achieve a work-life balance, or at least to achieve a successful blend between the two worlds?”

Smith: “When I’m working, I make sure I’m working in a particular physical environment. That is my workspace. When I close the door here, work gets done. I also make a point of dressing for work, and when I finish, I go and get into more casual clothes. I find that helps delineate the work and the life so they don’t blend. Now, I realize many people might not have a room you can block off. Your office may well be the dining room table, or even the kitchen table, or a corner of your room somewhere. But I always find it useful, if I’m in that environment, to put stuff away. Say, ‘Okay, I’m going stop to work now.’ I put away the laptop, I put away the documents. In effect, I clear the kitchen table. The idea is to make that clearer delineation so you can stop this sort of psychological takeover. Now, it seems to me that we’re on all the time, even when we’re asleep. That, to me, is a very big issue that we need to clarify so that we can work better when we are working.”

Goeller: “Brian, we spoke recently about the Hybrid-Agile Project Management model, and it’s gotten a lot of buzz lately. At a high level, what is Hybrid-Agile Project Management?”

Porter: “Agile really is not all that new. The Agile manifesto came out nineteen years ago. The principle of Agile is basically about taking project management in shorter spurts, rather than what Rob was talking about—a robust project plan from the very beginning. The goal is: ‘We may not always know in the project what our end product is really going to look like. And so we need to take short spurts of planning. Okay, I know this much. Let’s start working on it. Let’s produce something.’ And then, when we get close to the end of that, we say, ‘Okay, now we have a better picture. Let’s plan the next step.’ So whether it’s product development, or software, or things that have an unknown scope, or that may not be stable technology, there’s an advantage to taking shorter planning stages, rather than one grand plan at the beginning. The term we use for that is ‘rolling-wave planning’ where we might have a big picture, but the details are in the short sprint. And then revise as we go along.”

Goeller: “We need to make changes so you’re not handcuffed to the original plans. So the pros here are that it’s more iterative, it’s more able to react to shifting tides. What are some drawbacks when you’re in a situation where you’re implementing Agile processes, where you’re getting all these stopping points and more information each time?”

Porter: “The disadvantage is there’s a lot of re-work, start-and-go, ‘Hey, I thought this was important, and now it’s not.’ It can be a challenge. Certain people like to know where they are heading. There are also free spirits who really enjoy Agile, and who go, ‘Hey, this is great! I don’t have to plan for the long term! I’m just thinking about what I’m doing today, tomorrow, or the next two weeks,’ or however long it is. So it really depends on the project and the personalities involved—whether it’s stressful or Utopia for them.”

Goeller: “I guess there’s a challenge in managing stakeholder expectations, right, Brian?”

Porter: “Yeah, especially when you’ve got those up front who say, ‘The scope isn’t stable, we’re not even sure what we want.’ I’ve actually seen stakeholders where one was ‘for’ and one was ‘against,’ and then you get into the project and they swap roles, and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I thought I’d get agreement, and now they’ve both swapped their opinion!’ So you’re constantly working to get the goals clarified, so we can take this wandering path and get to a unified end result. The idea with Hybrid is that the best of both worlds can be used. We have traditional project management, [and] we have agile project management, so we can merge those and use the best tools [from both], and that’s going to be our best result.”

Goeller: “So now I’m going to ask all of you to give me a one-word answer: Which of the triple constraints is most affected by the virtual world we’re living in? Is it cost, is it scope, is it time? Alana?”

Hill: “Most affected right now is time. Not just work-life planning, but the fact that people are in very different circumstances, and that’s impacting some of their productivity and focus.”

Goeller: “Rob, how about you? Cost, scope, or time?”

Smith: “I’m going to go with time as well, for much the same reasons as Alana said. Everything just seems to take longer virtually.”

Goeller: “Brian, how about you? Do you agree with them, or do you want to be a contrarian?”

Porter: “I was thinking my one word was going to be ‘yes’ because they’re really all tied together. Sorry, gotta be a contrarian! I’m going to say scope, because I’ve seen a lot of things that have been cancelled. ‘We don’t have the time, so we’re going to cancel it.’ Or with a third of the things we’re working on, I’ve seen, ‘Table it, forget it.’ It is affected by time, but they’re all [cost, scope, time] tied together.”

Goeller: “To everybody, what’s one bit of advice that you would offer to the audience? And maybe it’s something we haven’t been able to touch on today. What would be your one thing that you’d want the audience members to take out of this webcast? Alana?”

Hill: “Lead with empathy. Everyone’s living a very different life right now than we were a month ago.”

Goeller: “Rob?”

Smith: “Everybody is stressed a lot more. I think a lot of us are probably suffering from chronic stress, rather than acute stress, so we don’t even know it. For me, I’ve found the best way of dealing with that is to focus on the specific goal that I’m trying to achieve in my project, and every day. In other words, I’ve got the overall project goal, and each day I have set objectives I want to achieve towards achieving that goal.”

Goeller: “Brian, words of wisdom?”

Porter: “I don’t disagree with the other two, but what I’m going to say is waste. Everybody is stressed, everybody does have a lot going on. And I think we do things we don’t need to be doing. Get rid of the steps in your life that you don’t have to do, and see how much free time you pick up.”

Goeller: “That’s great! Take a step back from your life and say, ‘What’s needed and what isn’t?’ Thank you all so much!”

Suggested next steps: The AMA seminars Improving Your Project Managements Skills: The Basics for Success; Project Team Leadership: Building Commitment Through Superior Communication; Critical Thinking; Best Practices for the Multi-Project Manager; Agile Management and Strategy; AMA’s Comprehensive Project Management Workshop (visit our website below for details)

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