Could project work skew employee engagement scores?

the-history-of-employee-engagementHarvard Business Review posted a thought-provoking article on how employee engagement is usually measured and covers an alternative method of measuring it in a more balanced, objective fashion.

The challenge with traditional approaches to measuring engagement is that they rely on employee self-assessment, usually at a single point in time during the year.  This leaves the process open to impacts from recent significant events (e.g. organizational restructuring or year-end performance evaluations) as well as the potential for staff to game the system by answering how they believe they are expected to answer instead of answering how they truly feel.  The article proposes a different approach which is to tie engagement to multiple metrics which can be measured in an independent fashion.

While I support this philosophy, after reviewing the list of these measures, I was surprised that a number of them are likely to be present to a greater extent when people work on project teams instead of performing operational work.

Some of these indicators include:

Amount of work occurring outside of normal working hours.  The article claims that this is a good indicator of discretionary effort, yet how many project team members who chronically work late hours to meet another deadline would feel that this additional effort is truly discretionary?

Number of network connections and time spent with people outside of immediate team or region.  Project work usually results in greater cross-functional interaction than operational work, but if those interactions are not positive, engagement is likely to dip.

Percentage of participation in ad-hoc meetings and initiatives.  Such events are common in project work but I’ve frequently heard the complaints from team members of being involved in too many impromptu meetings.

Time spent in presence of skip-level leadership.  Team members are often exposed to senior stakeholders such as project sponsors.  Sometimes this can be a rewarding experience but other times it can result in undue stress and pressure for the team, especially when dealing with an untrained sponsor.

Hours per week spent in meetings with more than twenty attendees.  While project work tends to generate a significant number of meetings, usually only the largest projects have meetings with many attendees.  Most project managers are aware of the diminishing returns and high costs that result from holding such large meetings.  However, not participating in such large meetings doesn’t necessarily imply greater employee engagement.

In his defence, the author does not imply causality (e.g. working more time outside of normal working hours causes increased engagement) and does recommend that a number of these independent metrics be paired with traditional approaches (e.g. annual pulse surveys) to provide a fulsome picture of employee engagement.

Perhaps a future iteration of this research could focus on identifying metrics specific to project work which are indicative of increased employee engagement?

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Developing a dynamite project sponsor!

block buildingThe November 2014 issue of PM Network includes analysis from research focusing on the role of the project sponsor.  While there were no revelations as far as the criticality of the sponsor role or which are the key activities performed by a sponsor, one statistic did catch my attention.

Only 36% of the organizations which were surveyed provided development for the role of an executive sponsor.  This value is low given that the same study revealed that one out of three unsuccessful projects had poorly engaged sponsors as the root cause and having effective sponsors generated a 15% improvement in project success rates.

So why isn’t this happening?

It would be easy to blame low organizational project management maturity – that happens to be one of my favorite boogeyman for most project management “sins”!  However, that does not account for such a low percentage – my own empirical evidence supports the premise that even companies at higher levels of project management maturity rarely have any type of structured development programs in place to cultivate successful sponsors.  A more plausible explanation is that there is an assumption being made that when someone has become an executive that they have already gained the hard & soft skills required to be an effective project sponsor.

But is this really true?

Many executives reach their positions as a result of a track record of management success.  The competencies required to manage a line of business are very different from those needed to successful champion change.  Dr. John Kotter’s classic HBR article, What Leaders Really Do, covers this in depth and the following paragraph stands out:

Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled. They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership. Successful corporations don’t wait for leaders to come along. They actively seek out people with leadership potential and expose them to career experiences designed to develop that potential. Indeed, with careful selection, nurturing, and encouragement, dozens of people can play important leadership roles in a business organization.

One word in that last sentence is key – nurturing.

So what should be done?

Developing sponsors takes more than just turning them loose on a project – the same development strategies which are used with project managers could be adapted for sponsors.  Assessing skills and experience is the first step – those can help to provide insights into which executives are NOT suited to be sponsors.  Those assessments can also provide input into the creation of personal development plans which should combine formal training on project leadership with experience-based learning.  The latter might start with roles serving on steering committees and then moves into progressively more challenging sponsorship roles.

A sustainment component required within such a development program is an onboarding process which gets executed whenever a project is ready to kick off.  That process would provide the sponsor with a refresher on their role including expected behaviors and responsibilities.

Lies, damned lies and statistics can certainly be used to support just about any argument, but the better trained a sponsor, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to effectively support a project.

Categories: Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Active listening helps you become a better project manager

imageTwo of the most frequently raised questions in online project management discussion groups are: “Is project management more science than art?” and “Which is more important to succeed in project management – hard or soft skills?”

The usual consensus with such questions is that while one cannot ignore the need to develop a solid foundation of hard skills (the “science”), the lack of soft skills (the “art”) will be a hurdle blocking the career progression for most project managers.

In the pantheon of soft skills, active listening is a powerful method of proving the authenticity of your interest in what someone is saying and feeling, both of which are critical to gaining trust.

Active listening embodies the name of my blog – simple in theory but not easy in practice.

Our ability to focus on anything for more than a few seconds is impacted by a variety of distractions. Unhealthy levels of multitasking combined with the siren songs of smartphones, e-mail and other technology-driven “enablers” have made it too easy for our minds to drift even when we are sitting right across from someone. Our lack of focus becomes evident to the other party, and they tune out of the conversation.

How can we improve our ability to actively listen?

Set yourself up for success by minimizing the sources of distraction when holding important discussions. Book a meeting room instead of an open area. Mute and turn off the vibrate mode on your smartphone. If you are taking notes, don’t keep your screen up or your notebook open the whole time and exploit lulls in the conversation as your opportunity to document what you have heard.

Schedule discussions at a time when you are less likely to experience a wandering mind. Don’t book meetings back-to-back as you are more likely to spend the first few minutes of each meeting recalling the previous one, not to mention the stress of rushing from the last meeting.

Recognize when your mind is wandering and gently bring yourself back into the conversation. Exercises in improving mindfulness can help to increase your focus over a longer time.

Whether or not you believe that commonly quoted statistic of 93% of communication being non-verbal, I’m sure you will agree that accepting everything you hear as the truth is likely to get you into trouble. Active listening is your key to resolving issues, unlocking motivations, and understanding hidden agendas.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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