Removing the noise… How to eliminate the unnecessary distractions from projects…

Distractions – let us count the ways. There’s nothing unique about the distractions we have at Hello — email, the lure of the always-on Internet, and too much personal chatter, just to name a few. What is different about our distractions is that we’ve stepped back to try and rid ourselves of the “noise” among us and around us, so we can stay focused and deliver great rich Internet applications on time and in budget.

You may not work on technical projects like I do and we do at Hello, but all projects are subject to the same kinds of distracting ills. During a recent process of improvement reflections, I have compiled a handful of quick ideas that will help any team increase its productivity.

With extensive experience in project management, and having seen distractions compound as the RIA technology around us becomes more sophisticated, we believe these ideas are essential for teams to stay focused, meet milestones efficiently, and do better work — three professional ethics that will ultimately lead to higher profits.

Identify a key person from each department to represent the team.

The point person’s job is to bring pertinent information forward from the team to the project manager. On our projects, a team may consist of designers, developers, information architects and engineers. Of course, they meet often on an ad-hoc basis, which is great. It’s the project manager’s job to stay in close communication with key people so pertinent information from informal gatherings is formally articulated to the entire team through meeting notes and status reports.

Manage side trips.

Our RIA projects can last anywhere from two to 12 months. On long projects, the road to completion may seem to wind sideways at times, which can be frustrating. It’s important to keep the team and the client focused on the fact that this is the nature of the work. If this were a river rafting trip, you have to “look long” while navigating each set of rapids as effectively as possible without any paddlers falling out of the boat.

Become the go-to person.

If you are a project manager, the more you know about the project, the less you need to interrupt your team members. It will behoove you to become a subject matter expert with a strong understanding of the project — the focal point on which your client relies. Answer as many question as possible yourself to minimize interruptions for the rest of your team.

Stop churn in its tracks.

When five or more emails are generated on the same topic, put an end to it in short order. Avoid the group response syndrome, in which team members are responding to each other’s responses. Table the churn promptly and flag the issue as an agenda item for the next status meeting. Resolve it and redirect the team forward.

Provide a focused, thoughtful agenda for team meetings.

When a project manager sets an agenda, it forces them to think through the issues. It also should dictate who really needs to attend the meeting. For instance, invite the designer who has been hands-on with a critical component, even if she is not a team lead. Select attendees based on topic and keep the discussion concise and focused on the agenda items.

Mark the difference between collaboration and conversation.

At Hello, we work very collaboratively, which is great. However, collaboration can rapidly disintegrate into conversation all too easily. The trick is to engage fully with the collaborative process without falling into random conversation. Decisions can’t be made conversationally; they can only be made collaboratively through informed communications.

Document the inputs and results of meetings.

The only way to ensure a clear understanding of decisions, action items, issues and accomplishments is to memorialize them in writing. We should use standard templates for the two kinds of meetings required on every one of our projects: weekly status reports and meeting notes. Neither of these templates is very sexy, but they will work. In our business, meeting notes are often quite technical, so we can include a synopsis in the weekly status report.

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