Step Away from the Computer & Get Out Your Post-It Notes!

[Update: This blog post has been included in the “PM Techniques” section of my book Worth Sharing: Essays & Tools to Help Project Managers & Their Teams.]

A while back I was teaching an introductory PM class for some high-achieving tech folks.  My overall goal was to begin to convert these perfectionists into project managers.  Mid-way through the first morning, I divided the class into several small groups of 4 or 5 people and assigned a series of planning exercises.  They had brought their own real world project ideas to class and the object of the game was to take a few of these from rough concept to full-blown, high-resolution project plans.  Each team had been given large Post-It notes, blank flip charts, and markers. There were also a couple of white boards available.

As the teams were working through the guided planning exercises, I could hear the familiar jumble of voices as ideas were bounced around, discussed, discarded, and revised.  One team, however, was strangely silent. Unlike the others who were up and moving about, they were seated around a table and looking at the back of one guy’s computer screen. I walked over to see what was going on.

One member of this group had brought his laptop and was running MS Project. As I approached, he looked up from the keyboard and said, “I figured it would save a us lot of work later if we capture our ideas right now in Project. That way we won’t have to transfer our notes from flip charts after we get back to the office. Okay?”

I paused and regarded him and his earnest fellow team members. They all seemed to be on board with this idea. So I said, “Sure. Go ahead and see how that works for you.” I smiled encouragingly, left them to their work and went on to observe the other teams.

Watch Out for the Quiet Ones

As the day unfolded the teams worked their way through the assigned planning exercises. First they created deliverables (WBS) lists, then task/activity lists, then time estimates and finally schedules.  At the end of each exercise a spokesperson for each team would present their team’s results for evaluation by the rest of the class.  Overall, it was a typical class.  Or was it?

Something was weird about the laptop-driven team. During the debriefings, the guy who had been inputting data into MS Project was always the spokesperson. In fact, he did all the talking! In contrast, the other teams would rotate spokespersons and almost all the members would chime in at random during the debriefings.
I also noticed that during the assignments, while the other teams were moving around, taking turns at the flip chart or white board, sharing the chore of writing the Post Its, etc., the laptop-driven team was far more quiet and inactive. The guy at the keyboard, however, was intensely focused on his work. His fellow team members would add a thought here and there and he would type something in response and read it back to them. Most of them couldn’t see the computer screen. They seemed to trust that he was capturing their ideas accurately.

As the day wore on, it became clear that the laptop-driven team really had only one person in charge — one owner —  one person who was in control of both the big picture and how all the pieces fit together!  And in sharp contrast to the flip chart, Post-It driven teams, who were often noisy and contentious, these folks were quite subdued.  It was clear to me that they simply didn’t care as much about this project.  And, to be honest, their project solution was ultimately less creative than the others’.

It’s Gotta Be “Our Project,” Not “My Project!”

So what’s the lesson here? Simply this. While technology like MS Project can contribute powerfully to the ongoing monitoring and management of a project, it can be like a straight-jacket during project conceptualization. When team members engage an old-fashioned flip chart or wall full of Post It notes, they’re free to quickly scribble ideas, underline some and cross out others.  It’s messy, nonthreatening and, above all, democratic. And when a team studies a wall full of hand-drawn notes, it’s clear they’re working with an unfinished, unpolished product. So it feels okay to jump in with additions and changes. The result: everyone feels equally empowered to step up, grab a marker, post a note, and engage the project concepts.

At the same time, because you’re dealing with tangible, physical objects, the process is active and kinesthetically engaging. The between-the-lines message of all this activity is:  We’re a team… this is OUR project.  And if they are all going to stay motivated once the project is up and running, they must feel this empowerment and ownership right from the start.

Contrast this with how the laptop-driven team must have felt after leaving those planning sessions. Those folks who were simply contributing voices could walk away with far less commitment to the project. After all, Keyboard Guy had captured it all anyway.  It was his problem now, right?

So Step Away from the Computer…

So the next time you find yourself cranking up the latest PM software in the presence of your core team, stakeholders, or contributors — and especially if you’re in the early days of the project — ask yourself these questions:

  • Can everyone in this group see what’s on my screen?
  • Is everyone equally empowered to act on this software and see their input become part of the project concept?
  • By using this tool, am I really inviting group participation? If not, why am I using it in a group setting?

It’s not just about manipulating the situation and getting “buy in.”  It’s about inviting all team members to authentically engage, reach out and embrace the project by ensuring their voices are heard and their concepts are fairly processed.

In short, it’s about making sure it’s Our Project and not simply My Project! And the best way to do this during project conceptualization is to step away from the computer and get out your Post It notes and flip charts.

Posted: April 25th, 2013 under Inspiration and Motivation, Project Management.
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