There are many lean companies operating successfully today. Flat hierarchies, lots of transparency around pay and company performance, employee ownership and more means that lean companies can feel like very informal environments. We also see informal cultures developing in huge multi-nationals: departments where it’s casual Friday every day and where the team works collaboratively to solve problems in open plan and virtual environments.
The role of the project manager is a formal role. There are processes and tools developed over decades, research and best practices all feeding into the common body of knowledge that stretches to hundreds of pages. Managing a project involves quite a lot of formality, and in those informal environments that can be a challenge.
Let’s look at how you can operate as a formal project manager even when your colleagues are Skyping you from their kitchen wearing pajamas.
Formality vs. Informality
The challenge for the project manager who is used to formal ways of working is that formality takes too much time. Even filling in corporate time tracking software can be seen as an unnecessary overhead by people who don’t appreciate that the data helps you get faster next time by improving your project estimates.
Lean organizations need decisions taken quickly, and often informally, outside the normal governance structure of a project. Your sponsor won’t convene a steering group meeting to approve a change: he or she will just tell you to go ahead as they join you in the elevator in the morning. For a formal project manager, that can feel uncomfortable, but you won’t get any thanks for suggesting they bring it up at a team meeting where it can be recorded in the minutes. You’ll be expected to start work on that change as soon as the elevator doors close.
Another vote for the informal project environment comes from the people who say that too much process can kill innovation. Stepping through a published methodology can not only take forever (at least it feels like that to your stakeholders and team) but also constrict a creative approach to problem solving.
You can understand why your project team shuddered when you turned up to your first meeting with a copy of the PMBOK under your arm.
Too much informality, on the other hand, can lead to nothing being recorded. All the project’s information is in the team’s heads. That might work right now, but it’s hard to recall when you are doing a similar project in a year and you want to remember what worked well and what you should avoid.
The absence of project records also means that no changes are documented. If you don’t know what your current project scope is, you’ll never know if you’ve achieved it. That presents a problem around knowing when the project is over. If you’re charging out your company’s time, then your client will definitely want sight of when they will stop incurring costs as a result of hiring you.
So, if the formal approach has problems, and the informal approach is challenging in itself, that leaves the project manager in a difficult position. You need to find the right balance between time-consuming methods and an approach that is so light that nothing gets done.
The Right Level of Process
The trick to balancing formal ways of working with an informal office environment is to get the right level of process. Cutting out the formal approach to putting together a project plan doesn’t absolve the development team of the need to do proper estimates. Tasks still need to be prioritized. Someone needs to take ownership because if it is left to the goodwill of the team to do something then you risk no one taking responsibility or everyone thinking someone else has done it. Result: it doesn’t get done. On a project you can’t afford for that to happen.
Look through your methods and tools and work out which ones are really important. Ditch long meetings in favor of Agile-style stand ups. Use online collaboration tools to streamline project communication instead of getting bogged down in endless emails. Talk to each other often. Cut time out of the decision making process by identifying who really needs to be involved and going straight to them. Every interaction and request has to count for something, and has to be seen as moving the project forward so that your stakeholders don’t view the project manager’s role as an overhead that “just” creates bureaucracy and process.
In short, go for the minimum level of formality that you can get away with and still do a good job.
Hide the Formality with Dashboards
If you really need formal documents, have them. It’s your project, and as long as you are meeting your customer’s needs, not creating more work for your colleagues and getting the job done it shouldn’t matter how you go about it. However, you don’t need to show your boss your 300-line Gantt chart. She won’t understand it and she certainly isn’t interested. Pick out the top milestones and present a consolidated view of the project using dashboards. That’s a faster and slicker way to get the same information across while feeling lean and still professional.
If efficiency is of an utmost priority in your organization, make sure your tool has instant dashboards. You don’t need to spend hours creating a custom dashboard or reports for a director who expects streamlined operations. We developed the ProjectManager.com dashboards with the explicit goal of saving time on reporting while still sharing the data visualization of the project. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how hungry the team in an informal org is for data analysis and visualizations of the project.
Make your own records so that organizational knowledge isn’t lost. When you need to refer to them, you’ll have them and others will start to see the benefit of letting a little formal project management creep in.
The Importance of Cultural Fit
If you have to work out which processes to scrap and which to streamline, you’ll need a good grounding in project management. It’s always easier to adapt ways of working when you’ve been doing the job for a while and seen how it can be done in different ways. If you’ve only just started managing projects it isn’t impossible to adapt your style for an informal environment, but you might not have as much experience to draw from.
Cultural fit in a lean organization is important. In fact, it could mean the difference between keeping your job and being asked to leave. Being able to relate to your colleagues and understand what they want is essential, and it’s a tough job to balance that with the expectation that you can bring all your good project management skills and get things done while not formally planning any tasks. Part of your “cultural fit” is to make sure that your stakeholders and managers know exactly what is possible and how lean project management can go in your organization.
It is possible to run projects formally and professionally within a highly informal organization. Do what you need to do to manage the project but don’t add unnecessary overheads or make demands on your project team that don’t fit culturally with the organization’s working practices. You’ll find a balance and a healthy respect for both ways of working goes a long way to delivering successful projects time after time.
Take it further: For an overview of Agile project management, check out trainer Devin Deen’s short video “Agile Project Management: Scrum & Sprint Demystified.”
Moving your project management online is one surefire way to bring agility into your project management processes. Decisions can be made more quickly, everything done is recorded automatically and there are even high level dashboards for just the right amount of project reporting. Try ProjectManager.com today for perfect online project planning.