For 21st century business, it’s not enough to hire smart people.
And if success was driven solely by talent, expert managers in business wouldn’t be as critical as coaches are in sport. Consider football. Manchester United owns a commanding lead in resources, allowing it to hire the world’s best players. Nevertheless, it lags behind no less than twelve other clubs. But given the wealth of talent at their collective disposal, any of the top twenty teams could dominate--with the right coaching. Indeed, at that level, every player is talented and everyone’s a star; what sets a team apart is its cohesion, its communication, and its creativity on the pitch.
In other words, what separates the best from the rest is management and coaching. An expert coach can wring more from less, multiply the effect of talent and cooperation, and lead a skilled team to success.
We think this is as true for business as it is for football.
As trendwatchers, we know that the future of business is as much about people as technology. Our research tells us that the future is defined by small, flexible, elite teams brought together from around the world. But it’s how these teams are managed, that is, how they’re enabled, encouraged, and empowered, that will separate winners from losers in the harsh realities of 21st century competition.
Agile project management (APM) and APM methods using Scrum, lean software development, and disciplined agile delivery, among others--are taking business, and not just software development, into the future. But to make the most of these management innovations, business leaders need to rethink a basic principle of the Agile manifesto that drove this paradigm shift: “people and interactions over processes and tools.”
Unfortunately, the focus on iteration and sprints, ScrumMasters and waste elimination, backlog refinement and risk assessment, too often overshadow the importance of the flesh-and-blood team and its emotional, sometimes messy, interactions. It’s not enough to break a project into iterations, accept that long-range planning and forecasting will be inaccurate, embrace flexibility, and take the necessary steps to minimise distractions and maximise output.
The true masters of APM are those who recognise that putting people and their problems first is the path to success.
What do we mean?
If a manager adopts the methods of APM but continues to micro-manage, time-track, and see team-members as ‘workflow resources,’ even the most elite team will consistently underperform. Instead, the project manager of the future needs to see her team much like an elite unit of special forces commandos. They have the talent, the skill, and the know-how to complete the project; her job is to free them to do it, to motivate them to work hard, and to manage problems such that the team--and every person in it--is empowered to do their best work.
Let’s look at four 21st century management techniques that every PM needs to embrace.
1) Stop time tracking and focus on results
“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”
Anything that diminishes productivity is bad business. Anything that endangers the quality of the product is intolerable.
Keep in mind, then, that very few people subject to time tracking like it. 19th and 20th century management technique were obsessed with control, and time tracking software is just a new gloss on an old insult. Managers who don’t trust their employees love it, as do the productivity obsessed, though counterintuitively, their choice of method makes it harder to achieve.
As forward-thinking PMs know, it’s not lots of work, but rather smart work that brings the best results. You don’t care if your team takes frequent breaks, leaves early on Friday, or make jokes while they work. And the path to creative solutions often invites strange, undocumentable side-trips.
You don’t confine race horses to improve their speed and you don’t time track Navy SEALs; you turn them loose!
Time tracking is like quicksand for creative energy. As Laura Slack, the “Productivity Pro,” explained to Fast Company, “Why are we wasting time figuring out how much time we’re wasting? [...] People are spending far more time creating these elaborate systems than it would have taken just to do the task. You’re constantly on your app refiguring, recalculating, recategorizing.”
Effective managers care about results, and to get them, there are more effective, more ‘people-centric,’ methods. Slack’s advice is to rethink productivity by providing your team with uninterrupted space (and no multitasking!) in which to accomplish critical tasks. She also recommends that PMs prioritise tasks and communicate this ranking clearly.
The exception, of course, is when a project requires tracking billable hours. In that case, tracking the amount of time spent on a task makes sense.
2) Solicit solutions
“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
Telling employees what to do is poor management. Instead, rely on their expertise and creativity. APM, after all, is driven by self-organising teams. Its basic logic is that the team is capable of a great deal of self-management, and thus, that the purpose of the project manager is to free the team to do its thing.
But how often is this strategic advantage recognised? How often is organisation imposed from above, dropped on a team like a lead weight?
Instead, encourage creative thinking by allowing your people to identify problems and propose their own solutions. This requires that managers take a step back, relinquish control, and build trust and open communication.
Another way to encourage bottom-up, self-organisation is to communicate tasks and allow team members to decide for themselves who’ll take them on. They know what they’re good at, what they enjoy, and with whom they work most effectively. Your job as a PM is to facilitate, not regulate, empower not restrict.
3) Provide immediate, substantive feedback
“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
The annual review is dead. Young employees, especially millennials, crave more constant feedback. They want to know in real-time if something can be improved, and if they’ve done good work, they expect praise just as quickly. As Joanna Sinclair, writing for Aalto University Executive Education Program warns, “If you wait until a project is finished to offer criticism – even constructive criticism – you are the one to blame, not the person whose efforts you feel did not meet expectations.”
Effective feedback is as near to real-time as you can make it. But it depends on trust, transparency, and sometimes painful levels of honesty. “You need to be the first to come out and admit mistakes,” explains Marko Parkkinen, the CEO of Seedi Solutions Agency and an expert on the emotional aspects of business. “Transparency and honesty are not only refreshing; in my mind, they mark winners. It takes guts and shows character to admit you made a mistake and not wait to see if someone picks up on it.”
For tomorrow’s managers, this demands rethinking how they view mistakes and excuses. The former are nearly always valuable, the latter never are. But this isn’t license to be hard on your team; be hard on yourself and easy on them.
Help people be happy and they’ll be productive
In short, if your team is happy they’ll work hard. Agile project management demands a lot from its small teams. It’s high stress, hard work, and demandingly creative. And while the path to success may seem to be paved by workflow processes, it’s actually people and their feelings that show the way forward.